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INTERVIEW | Voices of Spring: COC Ensemble Singers Take On Don Pasquale

By Joseph So on May 10, 2024

Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio members rehearse Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, L-R: Alex Halliday; Korin Thomas-Smith; Wesley Harrison; Ariane Cossette (Photo: Taylor Long)
Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio members rehearse Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, L-R: Alex Halliday; Korin Thomas-Smith; Wesley Harrison; Ariane Cossette (Photo: Taylor Long)

After a long absence of thirty years, the Canadian Opera Company brings back Donizetti’s effervescent Don Pasquale as one of its spring opera productions. It opened to rousing audience reception on April 26, in a delightfully zany production designed by the Canadian creative team of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet. Beautifully sung and acted by a terrific cast of homegrown talent (Simone Osborne and Joshua Hopkins) and guest artists (Misha Kiria and Santiago Ballerini), it was an auspicious start to the spring season.

To be sure, this Donizetti gem is a real audience pleaser. According to the statistics kept by the website Operabase, Don Pasquale is ranked thirty-first in popularity based on the number of performances given worldwide, with a total of 4,150 performances in 936 productions since 1996. Given the light-hearted story, full of catchy tunes, not to mention the feel-good ending, it makes for a delightful evening at the opera.

Don Pasquale is also a terrific vehicle for budding singers at the start of their careers, young artists with beautiful, fresh voices and game to take on a challenge. The COC has assembled just such a cast in this special, one-night-only Ensemble Performance on May 14. It stars three current Ensemble Studio members and one former member back for a star turn.

Soprano Ariane Cossette (AC) sings the beautiful and smart Norina, tenor Wesley Harrison (WH) the lovesick Ernesto, and baritone Korin Thomas-Smith (KTS) as the scheming Dr. Malatesta. Returning to take on the title role of Don Pasquale is the recent Ensemble graduate, bass-baritone Alex Halliday (AH). Having heard all four on many occasions, I can truthfully say that they all possess fresh, attractive voices, solid training, innate musicality, and all destined for significant careers.

I had the opportunity to speak with the four of them recently, at the COC’s headquarters on Front Street. Since mid April, they have been there regularly to observe all the rehearsals of the main cast, soaking it all in:

LvT: Congrats to all of you for your upcoming show! It’s a great opera to showcase young artists with beautiful voices like yours. Have any of you sung Donizetti before? How do you find the experience of singing this opera? What’s your favourite moment? In preparing your role, who do you listen to? Or do you listen to anyone at all?

AC: This is my very first Donizetti, and it’s all very exciting. My favorite moment in the opera is at the end of Act 2 where “Sofronia” finally shows her true colours to Don Pasquale. It’s an over the top, very funny scene and has all sorts of vocal acrobatics. Everything makes me laugh and it’s difficult to stay serious.

WH: I’m already quite fond of Donizetti. I covered Nemorino in L’Elisir d’amore while I was studying in Waterloo. My favourite part of this show would have to be the duet between Ernesto and Norina. It’s a very sweet moment of stillness at the end of a very chaotic day for the two of them.

AH: I have only sung Donizetti in scenes, not an entire opera. I sang a version of Don Pasquale in an abridged, English translation. Now, learning it in Italian, it doesn’t feel like the same opera. The music is really fun to sing. There’s not a ton of dissonance in the harmony, so it is actually some of the easier music to learn, despite all the text. Coming from having performed in Salome and The Cunning Little Vixen, this feels like simple math. My favourite moment in the opera is after Norina slaps Pasquale on the face — the music and text are totally perfect. That particular moment I think nails it better than any other scene and I laugh every time.

KTS: I had the chance to sing Dulcamara while at Yale, which is kinda like Malatesta in his own way — conniving and scheming like all good baritones should. I love the playfulness and panache of the bel canto repertoire but, and as trying and difficult as it may be, my favourite parts in the opera are the pitter-patter sections.

LvT: How do you like singing Bel Canto? That’s a lot of very fast music and a lot of words! Does it suit your technique? Do you prefer comic or tragic opera?

AC: It is a style I am just dipping my toes in now. It’s fun but challenging. I have found that it takes me more time not just to memorize it all, but to integrate everything and feel comfortable in it vocally. It feels like you are never done including all the little details but it makes it so interesting to work on. It needs to be as close to second nature as possible, to feel free enough to act. I am typically more attracted to dramas, but I am surprised to find out how much I enjoy singing a comic role.

WH: I’ve had a lot of fun in preparing Ernesto, especially in my acting. Ernesto is a sincere guy but he’s also quite dramatic and starts to spiral right at the beginning of the show. I quite enjoy singing this Bel Canto repertoire, exploring how playful I can be with my singing.

AH: I tend not to listen to recordings until after I’ve learned the role, to make sure I’m not accidentally imitating somebody else while learning it. Typically, I’ll only listen a couple of times, just to get a sense of what the scene sounds like. Who I listen to completely depends on how accurate they’re performing what’s written on the page. The Ricardo Muti recording of this show on Apple Music is an easy choice. The main challenge for me in this repertoire is all the text. Prosody in a foreign language is a difficult skill to get right, and wordy Bel Canto repertoire makes that challenge even more difficult due to all the words. Bel Canto repertoire in general is fantastic to sing, and always feels really good vocally. It doesn’t feel as good as some of the dramatic repertoire of Verdi for me, but I just like to have a little bit more space when singing. I prefer tragic operas overall, though I’m a fan of both genres. Tragic stories are often more naturally suited to my instrument.

KTS: They say that Bel Canto should fit everyone’s technique. As the name Bel Canto, or “beautiful singing” implies, it can be and should be done by just about anyone. I do however think that this repertoire requires not just a different technical demand, but also a different demand of imagination and personality which I find especially engaging. I’m definitely a Team Comic guy, and I don’t take immediately to the dramatic rep. Each has their own chances to shine in this production, so hopefully we do both.

LvT: Alex, you are singing the old guy, Don Pasquale. Well, you’ll probably be the thinnest Pasquale of all time. [Laughs all round… AH: They’ll give me padding, and a bald cap!] I don’t think of you as a buffo baritone. The famous buffo baritone Francois Loup was Pasquale here 30 years ago, and he was terrific. But he was already in his 50s when he sang here. What are your thoughts on a young singer playing this crusty old guy? Vocally and dramatically, the challenges of Pasquale?

AH: You have identified, by far, the most difficult challenge of this piece. The first thing I should mention is that vocally, the tessitura of Pasquale is quite comfortable, but after that the challenges begin. There is no legitimate way for a man my age to see 20-plus years into the future and extract the wisdom and experience I would have then to make the absolute most out of a role like Pasquale. My approach is to trust that the comedy is perfectly baked into the story and the music, and to observe closely what former great Pasquale’s have done and what hair and makeup will do a fantastic job in making me look the part which I know they will. Barbe and Doucet [the creative team] have a clear vision. The closer I adhere to their vision, the easier it will be to mask my age. Misha Kiria is a fantastic Pasquale to emulate. Aside from that, the best way to perform a comic opera is to take it as serious as possible, and that is what I will do.

LvT: Ariane — tell us about Norina. How do you find her music? She’s a soubrette one moment, and a tough cookie the next. Give us your thoughts on singing and acting this role. Do you have a favourite Norina? Do you listen to any recordings or live performances in preparing this role? Who do you listen to?

AC: Norina is a very strong woman who is willing to risk a lot to get her happy ending, and I truly respect that. She is often portrayed as mean, but this production is more complex, and I appreciate that. Norina is focused on her goal, to marry Ernesto, and she does everything to get there. But her intention is not to hurt Don Pasquale. When I first got the score, I listened to recordings mainly to get a sense of the structure and the style. I enjoyed listening to Muti’s recording with Mirella Freni. You can tell her acting is great, just by hearing her.

LvT: Wesley — you are Ernesto, a pretty straightforward, leading man role. Give us your thoughts on singing and acting Ernesto — does his music with its very high tessitura a big challenge? Who’s your favourite tenor in this role? Florez? Polenzani? Pavarotti? Alfredo Kraus? Who do you listen to?

WH: This role does have quite a high tessitura compared to other rep I’ve been singing so far. I’ve had to spend much more time in the practice room with this role compared to my others this year but I think it’s gonna serve me quite well in the long run. For singers I love listening to in this role I’m stuck between the ease of Juan Diego Florez and the phrasing of Alfredo Kraus.

LvT: Korin — Malatesta is quite an acting role. He also has the best tune in the opera, “Bella siccome un angelo”.…well, one of the best tunes anyway. What are the challenges of this role? Do you have a comic streak in you?

KTS: My personal humour tends to lean towards a very campy and slapstick style, which is not what this production requires, so taming my natural instincts of tomfoolery has been quite a quest! Singing “Bella siccome un angelo” is kind of like singing your first Count Almaviva, as it’s on the first audition package of every baritone. This is an incredible full-circle moment for me, learning this aria, but also doing role studies and scenes while in grad school, and now doing the full role at the COC. Nothing short of magical, really.

LvT: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and toi toi toi to all of you. On May 14, I’ll be in the audience cheering all of you on!

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Joseph So
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