Three outstanding Canadians receive the Opera Canada Award
October in Toronto brings cooler weather, Thanksgiving, Hallowe’en, and a busy calendar of concerts. And if you are an avid opera fan, it’s also the time for the annual “Rubies,” aka the Opera Canada Awards. Named after the late Ruby Mercer who founded Opera Canada magazine, this event has been in existence since 2000, with the great contralto Maureen Forrester as the first recipient. The Rubies pays tribute to the many outstanding Canadians in the field of opera, individuals who are recognized at home and abroad as tops in the profession.
This year, the three honourees are soprano Karina Gauvin, conductor Yves Abel, and stage director Michael Patrick Albano, each with a long and distinguished career in opera — onstage, in the pit, or behind the scenes. The event took place last evening at the corporate headquarters of BMO Financial Group, on the 68th floor of First Canadian Place.
It has served as the Rubies venue for the last decade or so, thanks to the generosity of BMO Financial Group. It’s a great opportunity for opera professionals and fans of the genre to renew acquaintances and make new friends, not to mention enjoying a fantastic dinner plus performances, all taking place up in the sky with the stunning night view of the city below.
As in previous years, dual welcomes at the beginning, from BMO’s Director of Corporate Donations, Nada Ristich, followed by David Giles, the Chair of the Opera Canada Publications, who also happens to be the grandson of Ruby Mercer. The MC of the evening was Rick Phillips, broadcaster and frequent pre-concert speaker.
Kicking off the festivities was a performance by the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, a group founded by the late Ruby Mercer. Under the direction of Teri Dunn, the kids performed an excerpt from Laura’s Cow, a CCOC commission, and a tantalizing preview of the upcoming commission, The Monkiest King, by Chinese Canadian composer Alice Ho, sung in Mandarin no less!
Presenting the first honouree conductor Yves Abel was his old pal Noel Edison, Artistic Director of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. As is typical of these “tribute-roasts,” there were plenty of endearing jabs that elicited laughter from the full house. Paying tribute on video was soprano Simone Osborne, his Adina in the current COC The Elixir of Love. In his acceptance speech, Abel talked about his early beginnings as a boy soprano. His first role was as Miles in The Turn of the Screw conducted by his mentor Mario Bernardi, with the Mrs. Grose of Mary Morrison, who just happened to be sitting in the audience.
As Abel left his treble days behind, it soon became apparent that his aspiration to be a tenor wasn’t meant to be. He didn’t want to be — in his own words — “a second or third-rate character tenor” and switched to conducting instead. His forgoing tenor territory to become a conductor turned out to be a terrific move. Based in Florence, Italy, Abel is in demand to conduct in the great opera houses, from the Met to Covent Garden to Paris to Berlin to Hamburg, and now finally to the Canadian Opera Company. Bravo Maestro Abel! Singing in his honour was coloratura mezzo Marjorie Maltais, in a sparkling “Non piu mesta” from La cenerentola.
Next up was Quebec soprano Karina Gauvin, presented by pianist/coach Michael McMahon, a dear colleague and friend. He called Gauvin “a hard-working, super-sensitive soul, intelligent, funny, possessing the most beautiful voice, and an outstanding musician, a true artist, not just in her singing but in her everyday life, and a national treasure.” Well, you can’t get higher praise than that! There was also a warm and quietly humorous video tribute from German conductor Alexander Weimann, a frequent collaborator of Gauvin’s.
Gauvin gave a moving and heartfelt speech, in perfect English no less, given that she spent her formative years living in Toronto. She paid tribute to a lot of people and organizations, including the CCOC where she was a chorister; Dr. Derek Holman who offered her encouragement; voice teacher Marie Daveluy who inspired her; conductor Alan Curtis who believed in her and engaged her in many projects, etc. Gauvin told the audience that her motto in life and career could be summed up in one word — resilience. To remain steadfast and focused in life has held her in good stead through all the ups and downs. Singing in honour of Gauvin was Asitha Tennekoon, one of the most promising of young Canadian tenors, in the great Mozart tenor aria, “Il mio Tesoro,” with ever-supportive Michael Shannon at the piano.
The third recipient was stage director Michael Patrick Albano, who has been, for an astounding forty-years, at U of T opera school as its resident stage director. Introducing him was another familiar face, lawyer-turned-mezzo Janet Stubbs, who paid tribute to Albano’s infectious enthusiasm, directorial savvy, personal kindness, generosity of spirit, delightful sense of humour, a keen intellect and rare modesty. Albano helped create a nurturing environment for young students to thrive. He has directed 100 opera productions over the years, at U of T and in professional companies such as the COC and New York City Opera. He has also penned librettos for seven children’s operas, not to mention the hilarious Rob Ford, the Opera many of us saw! Appearing on video, baritone Russell Braun, a graduate of the opera school, thanked Albano for his guidance during his student years at U of T.
True to form, Albano gave a hysterically funny acceptance speech, telling anecdotes right and left that had all of us in stitches. A couple of the truly memorable ones – his hiding under Violetta’s bed in Act Four of a COC La Traviata; or working as assistant to the eccentric Hermann Geiger-Torel in Die Zauberflöte. Among the many people to whom he paid tribute – Dean Don McClean and Sandra Horst among them, the funniest has got to be his affectionate tribute to Ruby Mercer, whom some of us old-timers knew. He called Ruby “the worst driver I ever encountered,” which totally cracked me up! Anyway, Albano’s speech alone was worth the price of admission to the Rubies Awards. Singing in honour of Albano was soprano Lucia Cesaroni, in Mimi’s Act One aria from La bohème. The first line of the aria is “Si, mi chiamano Mimi, ma il mio nome è Lucia” — well, you can imagine the giggles from the audience!
There you have it, a super-fun evening. Opera is serious — and a challenging — business in the age of declining attendance and financial uncertainties. But with individuals as dedicated and as committed to this art form as the three honourees and their colleagues in attendance at this event, I dare say the future of opera is assured.