October is an exciting month for Toronto area opera fans. To be sure, it’s the start of the new season for both the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier, not to mention the many vocal recitals in venues big and small. For keen observers of all things operatic, October is also the month of the Rubies, an event that honours Canadian artists who have made genuine contributions in opera both at home and abroad.
The “Rubies” is named after the late Metropolitan Opera soprano Ruby Mercer, the founder of Opera Canada, a national arts magazine based in Toronto. Since 2000, the Rubies have honoured many outstanding Canadians from Maureen Forrester and Jon Vickers in the earliest days to Sondra Radvanovsky and Adrianne Pieczonka in more recent years. The three honourees in the 2018 Edition are COC General Director Alexander Neef, Quebec soprano and voice teacher Dominique Labelle, and retired Opera Canada editor Wayne Gooding.
In his tenure as the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company since 2009, Alexander Neef has raised the artistic standards of the COC, brought big-name artists to sing in Toronto, and through the Ensemble Studio, nurtured the development of many young Canadian singers who have gone on to major careers. This fall, Neef is taking on the additional responsibilities as Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Opera.
Lyric soprano Dominique Labelle has had an important career in mostly in the USA and Europe, singing the lyric repertoire that includes Donna Anna, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, and Lucia di Lammermoor. She is perhaps best remembered as Donna Anna in the Canadian film Don Giovanni Unmasked starring Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Labelle has since transitioned to teaching voice at McGill University, nurturing the next generation of young Canadian opera singers.
Three individuals in the business, and three deserving candidates for the 2018 Rubies. The event took place at First Canadian Place, the headquarters of BMO Financial. All attendees were treated to a delicious dinner of beet-cured salmon appetizer, perfectly cooked beef tenderloin, and a dessert aptly called “Blueberry Financier” — bankers have excellent culinary taste!
Following the wonderful meal, host Alexa Petrenko, no stranger to classical music fans as she’s a long-time broadcaster on 96.3 FM, kicked off the proceedings. Nada Ristich of BMO Financial and David Giles, Chair of the OC Publications and grandson of Ruby Mercer, gave separate welcomes to everyone. This was followed by a performance of excerpts from The Snow Queen (by Canadians John Greer and Jeremy James Taylor) by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company under its conductor Teri Dunn, with Christina Faye at the piano.
The three honourees, Alexander Neef, Dominique Labelle, and Wayne Gooding were presented by Sarah Billinghurst Solomon (former assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera), composer and Pulitzer Prize winner Yehudi Wyner, and Professor Linda Hutcheon and Dr. Michael Hutcheon respectively. There were also testimonials on video from conductor Johannes Debus, broadcaster Kelly Rice, and opera aficionado and former OC board chair Peter Hunt, and former Rubies Chair Sue White.
All presenters were extremely complimentary in their praise of the honourees of course, but I was particularly moved by Wyner’s comments on Labelle as an artist and a person. Also exceptional was Labelle’s heartfelt tribute to her own teacher, the late soprano Phyllis Curtin; and her speaking about how a bout of thyroid cancer has altered her perspectives on her career as a singer and a teacher. I felt privileged to have been there. I found the stories from the speakers, about how opera as a genre speaks to them, most inspiring.
After the presentations, we were entertained by Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, currently Tatiana in the COC Eugene Onegin. I had the privilege of interviewing her twice for articles in the past, including once at the Pearson Airport lounge when she was in transit! El-Khoury has a marvellous dramatic coloratura, blessed with amazing high pianissimos. It was on full display in the two selections she sang — “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, and Elena’s gorgeous cantilena, “Arrigo ah parli ad un core” from I vespri Siciliani, with the wonderful Rachel Andrist on the piano.
At the end of the evening, the new Opera Canada editorial director Gianmarco Segato thanked all the attendees and donors. He also revealed a very interesting plan — that in future Rubies there will be an additional category, of honouring artists and individuals who have passed on, those who have made significant contributions to Canadian opera. A wonderful idea, and I can think of many deserving candidates. One that immediately comes to mind is the great Canadian soprano Lois Marshall. I can’t wait!
[Disclosure: The author of this article is a contributing editor at Opera Canada, presenter of the Rubies]