University of Toronto Opera Division

University of Toronto, Opera Division (Royal Conservatory Opera School,1946-69; Opera Dept, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto 1969-78). The first opera classes at the TCM (RCMT) were those initiated by Ernest MacMillan in 1926 when he became principal there.

University of Toronto, Opera Division

University of Toronto, Opera Division (Royal Conservatory Opera School,1946-69; Opera Dept, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto 1969-78). The first opera classes at the TCM (RCMT) were those initiated by Ernest MacMillan in 1926 when he became principal there. They were directed by Countess Laura de Turczynowicz (b Laura Blackwell, St Catharines, Ont, ca 1877, d California ca 1953), whose European operatic career had centred in Munich and Bayreuth before World War I. The Conservatory Opera Company performed Hansel and Gretel and The Sorcerer (week of 16 Apr 1928 at the Regent Theatre); Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and von Suppé's Boccaccio, with Bach's Peasant Cantata as a curtain-raiser (week of 1 Apr 1929 at Hart House); and, in November, as part of the CPR Festival, Vaughan Williams' Hugh the Drover. The latter opera and Hansel and Gretel, the final productions of this company, were given in March 1930 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

The hiatus in operatic training at the TCM, caused by the Depression and World War II, lasted until 1946 when Arnold Walter, director of the Senior School of the TCM (RCMT 1947), established the Opera School as a division of that school to provide a two-year comprehensive training program for young singers and a production unit for the display of Canadian operatic talent. The prefix 'Royal,' granted August 1947, began to be used four months after the school was opened.

Nicholas Goldschmidt was music director and conductor of the Royal Cons Opera School 1946-57 and Felix Brentano was stage director 1946-8, succeeded by Herman Geiger-Torel (who continued to direct individual productions for the school until his death in 1976, alternating with a number of others including Werner Graf, Giuseppe Macina, Andrew MacMillan, and Leon Major). With the reorganization of the RCMT in 1952, Walter became director of the Faculty of Music (University of Toronto) and Ettore Mazzoleni was named principal of the School of Music (RCMT) and (general) director of the opera school, retaining that position until 1966. He also conducted and coached. Peter Ebert was director and stage director 1967-8, followed by Anthony Besch 1968-9, Georg Philipp 1969-72, and Richard Pearlman 1972-3. Ernesto Barbini joined the music staff in 1953, assumed Goldschmidt's duties in 1957, and was music director from 1961 until his retirement in 1975, when he was succeeded by James W. Craig, who had been a coach and conductor 1958-64 and had resumed those duties in 1971. Craig remained in the position in 1990. The school's conducting and coaching staff has included, at different times, Mario Bernardi, George Brough, GeorgeCrum, Victor Feldbrill, Tibor Polgar, and Alfred Strombergs.

In 1969 the school became a department of the Faculty of Music, with Ezra Schabas as chairman 1969-78, followed in 1978 by Constance Fisher (who had joined the staff in 1972 as a stage director and instructor). Fisher was designated divisional co-ordinator of the opera division. She was succeeded in 1983 by Michael Albano, who had begun as stage director in 1977. Albano and Fisher became associate co-ordinators of the division in 1987. In 1969 the department began offering a two-year post-graduate diploma in operatic performance, and in 1987 the division began offering a two-year diploma program to train pianists as operatic repetiteurs. Until 1969 no diploma or degree was given to those who attended the opera school program of training.

The first opera school presentation of operatic excerpts was at Hart House Theatre 16 Dec 1946. A full production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride followed in April 1947 at Eaton Auditorium. Mrs Floyd Chalmers founded the Opera and Concert Committee of the RCMT to assist in the presentation and promotion of complete opera performances by the school - six by 1950. In November 1950 the Toronto citizens who had assisted the Royal Conservatory Opera Company with the first Opera Festival (Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, and La Bohème, in February at the Royal Alexandra Theatre) formed the Opera Festival Association which, in assuming all budgetary and administrative responsibilities for the annual festival, assured the opera school of a continuing showcase for its talent and a focus for its activities. After 1954, however, the Opera Festival (later the COC) employed professional singers, and the participation of Opera School students was limited to the chorus and minor roles. (The change in 1957 to a fall season precluded further student participation.)

In 1963 the opera school was relocated in the University of Toronto's Edward Johnson Building, the MacMillan Theatre of which had been designed specifically for its stage use. The building's inaugural ceremonies, 2 Mar 1964, heralded a week of events which included a performance 4 March of Britten's Albert Herring. The new facilities permitted a more adventurous and professionally oriented approach to training and performance, and in line with this a course in the technology of theatrical production was established in the fall of 1964.

For serious students of opera on both sides of the footlights, Opera School/Dept/Division fully-staged productions - a minimum of two a year until 1985, when budget constraints forced a reduction to one - have constituted what possibly is Canada's most rewarding continuous operatic program, at least as regards repertoire. (Programs of staged opera excerpts with piano accompaniment supplement the annual productions.) The established opera companies of Canada are bound, because they depend for survival on box-office popularity, to the few operas they can be sure will draw crowds. The Opera School/Division, with its different mandate, lower production costs, and sure subsidy, is relatively independent of the box office and may study and present works chosen for particular interest or challenge from the whole range of opera. It thus has been in a position to present the premiere of Raymond Pannell's Aria da capo in 1963, the English-language premiere of the English composer Humphrey Searle's Hamlet in 1969 (following the world premiere, that same season, in German, in Hamburg), the stage premiere of Willan's Deirdre in 1965, and the Canadian premieres of Paisiello's Il Mondo della Luna in 1962, Orff's Die Kluge, Cherubini's The Portuguese Inn, and Holst's The Wandering Scholar in 1966, Rossini's The Turk in Italy in 1968, Robert Ward's The Crucible and Richard Rodney Bennett's The Mines of Sulphur in 1976, Janácek's Katya Kabanova and Paisiello's The Barber of Seville in 1977, Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love in 1984, and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta in 1989. It gave the first Toronto performances of Ibert's Angélique in 1953 (the first production of this work by a Canadian company), Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea in 1958, Douglas Moore's Gallantry and Rossini's The Marriage Contract in 1960, Stanley Hollingsworth's The Mother and Respighi's Maria Egiziaca in 1961, Nino Rota's Silent Night in 1963, Francesco Cavilli's L'Ormindo in 1973, and Mozart's L'Oca del Cairo in 1987. In addition the school has presented Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites in 1967 and 1980, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande in 1968, Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, and Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortilèges in 1969 and similarly unhackneyed operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Weber, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Weill, Martinu°, and Berkeley.

After 1969 the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra accompanied opera productions. Previously the RCMT orchestra, or a chamber orchestra of professional musicians, or pianos had been used.

Many of the school's former students have established professional careers. Among them are Milla Andrew, Leonard Bilodeau, Jean Bonhomme, Victor Braun, Mark DuBois, Paul Frey, Don Garrard, Frances Ginzer, Marguerite Gignac, Robert Goulet, Alexander Gray, Elizabeth Benson Guy, Nicole Lorange, Phyllis Mailing, Ermanno Mauro, Lois McDonall, James Milligan, Mary Morrison, Cornelis Opthof, Mark Pedrotti, Maria Pellegrini, Gino Quilico, Patricia Rideout, Teresa Stratas, Janet Stubbs, Lillian Sukis, Heather Thomson, Bernard Turgeon, Jon Vickers, and Jeannette Zarou.


Further Reading

  • 'Canada's first school of opera,' CRMA, vol 5, Oct-Nov 1946

    Mazzoleni, E. 'How the Royal Conservatory created a Canadian operatic tradition,' OpCan, 4, Nov-Dec 1960

    'Cultural boom,' ibid, Feb 1964

    Ebert, Peter. 'Royal Conservatory Opera School,' OpCan, Feb 1968

    Besch, Anthony. 'Opera School workshop,' OpCan, Dec 1968

    Peglar, Kenneth W. Opera and the University of Toronto 1946-1971 (Toronto [1971])

    Jones, Gaynor. 'First steps toward stardom,' OpCan, vol 26, Winter 1985

    Hunter, Martin. 'The will to sing: a celebration of U of T's opera school stars,' U of T Magazine, Winter 1988

    'MacMillan Theatre,' Look at the Record

    'Opera in Montreal and Toronto'