06 Nov Peter McGillivray, UofT Opera Alumni returning to star as Frank Maurrant in Street Scene
As I stepped onto the stage of the MacMillan Theatre last week for the first time since graduating from the Opera Division in 2003, I must confess to being almost as nervous as I was the very first time. What would today’s students think of this “old man” now stepping in as a guest artist for their production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene this fall? I suppose that one thing I had in my favour is that I had been called on to play the character of Frank Maurrant, a cranky, reactionary older man who pontificates about the way things used to be. Compared to the energy and enthusiasm of the current crop of UofT opera singers, that sounds about right.
So much has changed since my days in the opera school, as I was reminded when looking for an outlet to plug in my indispensable smartphone and realizing that I’d never had to worry about that before. Many of the faces of my teachers and mentors remain the same in the form of the wonderful Michael Albano & sublime Sandra Horst. And yet I also am missing the faces of the now-retired Stephen Ralls and the late and much lamented Tina Orton. I find myself walking the familiar hallways and longing for my beloved voice teachers Lynn Blaser & Patricia Kern, both of whom left us far too soon. On a happier note, it’s been fun reconnecting with some of my then-classmates who are now faculty themselves, such as Jason Nedecky, who long ago shared the role of John Graves Simcoe in John Beckwith’s Taptoo! with me.
Getting back to the smartphone thing, as much as it has transformed our world, I’m struck by how much it’s changing the student experience. When I was in school, I felt I needed to spend all of my extra time in the library exploring new repertoire, listening to recordings and Watching DVD’s. I think of all the time I spent just having to look up the information itself… well, it boggles the mind. Now if you are thinking of a piece of music or opera score, you can find it and download it in seconds to your tablet. Want to hear a particular singer’s interpretation of the aria you’re working on? It’s probably on YouTube, iTunes or Spotify.
What I sense, as a working professional soloist for the past 15 years, is that the current crop of U of T Opera talent is as talented and well-trained as ever – maybe even better than in my day. Good, healthy vocal technique is what makes a busy professional career sustainable and it seems like the quality of vocal training is better and more comprehensive than ever. Of course that’s not all there is to making it as a pro, you’ve got to simultaneously develop your acting chops and your artistic sensibility. One thing I’m particularly encouraged by is that these students are out there going to see and hear all the opera, music and theatre in this city that they can, to soak up what makes a satisfying artistic storytelling experience. This didn’t always happen in my day – it’s tough to fit in to a busy academic and rehearsal schedule. But it’s good to know they are much more committed to getting out there to experience, discuss and criticize the art being created all around them. You can’t be an artist in a bubble.
If only we could be training the next generation of audiences as well and as thoroughly as we are training the next generation of artists. Those of us that love this art form and have dedicated our lives to its realization, need to recommit ourselves to becoming true and unapologetic evangelists for opera in all its manifestations. U of T Opera is an essential cog in the machine nurturing the next wave of Canadian stage talent. There are still so many obstacles for each of these operatic tadpoles to overcome. I know what they are going through and what challenges lie ahead. I’m one who was lucky enough to make a decent career in the opera world. Yet it is strangely comforting to be back in the cradle and crucible of my own artistic career. I’m immensely looking forward to sharing the stage with these incredible young performers and stealing a sweet taste of that same thrilling time in my life.