A group of U of T students and graduates is turning opera on its head in Mooredale Concerts’ upcoming Canadian premiere of Haydn’s La Fedeltà Premiata (Fidelity Rewarded). 26-year-old Maestro Julian Kuerti, a U of T music graduate, is attacking head-on the notion that opera is stodgy and anachronistic by making sweeping changes to condense the normally four-hour piece into a 75-minute performance, and-in a move that may shock traditional opera fans-adding a narrator.
That’s right, a narrator. A traditional complaint from many first-time opera fans is that the dialogue and lyrics, often written in a foreign language, make it difficult to discern exactly what is going on, even with the assistance of subtitles. Kuerti says, however, that it was technical issues with trying to project subtitles that initially drove him to seek out a narrator to guide the audience.
That narrator is none other than Stuart Hamilton, founder and former artistic director of the Toronto-based Opera in Concert series. Hamilton, a recipient of the Order of Canada, the Toronto Arts Award and the Governor General’s Commemorative Medal, is currently the quizmaster of the Opera Quiz during CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.
Kuerti says that the role of the narrator is to “bridge the gap between the Italian language and bridge gaps in the story.” The latter is necessary because Kuerti has elected to trim down the opera into mostly arias, with Hamilton filling in much of the plot. Operas, particularly those written before the Romantic era, have two main components: the recitatifs, where most of the plot is developed, and the arias, which are essentially the solos highlighting the singers’ vocal skills. In the context of the opera, Haydn’s arias are “the result of dramatic impetus” as developed during the recitatif sections, and Hamilton’s role will be to create that dramatic momentum with his “clever narration,” in Kuerti’s words.
The opera itself has an interesting history. As with most operas, the libretto, or story, was written by someone other than the composer of the music. In the case of La Fedeltà Premiata, the original librettist is unknown, although it is known that the libretto was actually written for a previous opera by an “inferior composer”, Kuerti jokes. As it turns out, there was no danger of this inferior opera being performed, as the Esterhazy Palace in Austria (where the musical score was stored) suffered a fire, resulting in the loss of all the music. In order to commemorate the rebuilding and reopening of the palace, Haydn was commissioned by the Prince of Austria to rewrite an opera based on the earlier libretto.
The libretto upon which the opera is based is extremely bizarre as well. “Strange things just come up,” Kuerti laughs. For example, he explains that in one scene, the premature death of one of the main female characters appears imminent, which would result in an unexpected and abrupt ending. In order to resolve this, the libretto calls for the appearance of two centaurs to abduct the woman, for no apparent reason. Kuerti muses that this “campy device” may just be there simply because the librettist wanted to have the comic effect of two winged centaurs abducting someone; the centaurs make no further appearances and no explanation is ever given for their initial entry.
In any case, as a conductor, Kuerti wants to focus on the music, and hence the compression of the opera into a performance consisting mostly of music in order to highlight the talents of the singers. Sopranos Leah Gordon and Mei Lee, tenor Michael McBride and bass-baritone Giles Tomkins are all students or recent graduates of the U of T’s musical faculty, and each has a lengthy list of high-profile performance credits to their name.
Maestro Kuerti himself is an outstanding conductor, and while he holds a conducting degree from the U of T and has studied all over North America and in Europe, his first degree is actually in theoretical physics and engineering, also from U of T. Asked what it is that draws many scientists and mathematicians to pursue music (local opera star Isabel Bayrakdarian is also a graduate of Engineering Science from U of T), Kuerti explains that music is unique in that it is the only art form which “takes place exclusively in time-everything else takes place in space”. Time, especially in its abstract representation, is fascinating to many engineers and scientists, and Kuerti speculates that scientific training makes it easy to appreciate that abstraction.
There’s not a lot of time to catch this particular opera, however, as the company is performing only two shows this weekend (Sept. 27 and 28). The Saturday performance is being held at 8 p.m. at Willowdale United Church in North York, and Sunday’s matinee is at 3 p.m. at Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music on campus. Tickets are only $20 for students and can be reserved by calling (416) 922-3714 x103. For more information on the singers, the conductor, or the Mooredale Concerts series, visit www.mooredaleconcerts.com.