Friday, June 29, 2012

New Canadian opera...Fit for a Barn!

I just returned from a fabulous preview of Canadian composer John Burge's first opera entitled "The Auction" being premier this weekend at the WESTBEN Arts Festival Theatre in Campbellford, ON.

Based on a children's story of the same title by Jan Andrews, the libretto for the score was written by Eugene Benson.  A fabulous singing cast included familiar Canadian singers mezzo Kimberly Barber, baritones Bruce Kelly and Matthew Zadow, tenor Keith Klassen and Westben founder and soprano Donna Bennett.

The story takes place over a single day as the widowed Granddad (Bruce Kelly) deals with the prospect of auctioning his possessions and his farm the next day.  His grandson Todd (well sung by 11 year old local soprano Olivia Rapos) is upset that his granddad is selling the farm and they sing about how much they love farming, how his granddad met his beloved grandmother (Kimberly Barber) and about their hopes and fears.  Past scenarios are played out through flashbacks behind and around a burlap scrim cleverly staged by director Allison Grant.  Dealing with the grief of loss and the passage of time,  Burge creates some stunning moments of musical drama, particularly the flashback scene of Grandmother's funeral where the 6 piece orchestra tightly led by Philip Headlam transition from the lilting rhythms of the folksy score to an intense, sustained almost organ-like dirge. This touching moment, so very personal for anyone who has lived in a farming community, was truly the highlight of the 2 hour opera.  The opera ends, just as it began, with the powerful and commanding voice of The Auctioneer (Keith Klassen) inviting everyone to gather around and get a deal..his final sale is the tractor, the centre of the set and the centre of all 20th Century farms.

The magic of a sunny summer afternoon as it was today, my own memories of growing up in a farming community and spending many Saturdays at auction sales and John Burge's very singable score left me looking forward to the next time this opera is produced.  As reviewer John Terauds crowed yesterday in his popular blog, Musical Toronto, The Auction truly "fits into its Westben Festival setting like a rooster on a fencepost"!

PS - for singers looking for new and interesting arias, there are many excerpt-able solos from this opera including the fabulous, tongue-twisting opening Auctioneer scene for solo tenor; a lovely aria for a light soprano where the boy Todd sings to a scarecrow accompanied by solo guitar; a poignant aria for Grandmother (sung by the fabulous Kimberly Barber) where she teaches Todd how to make a scarecrow;  the hilarious scene by Granddad's friend Mike Fedak (sung by tenor Tim Stiff) where he sings about why he didn't marry and of course, the funniest solo is for Granddad's daughter Alberta (sung by soprano Donna Bennett) where she sings about her dreams to become an opera singer but ends up a farmer's wife!

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