PETER MCGILLIVRAY WAS IN A SOMEWHAT GIDDY MOOD when I reached him by telephone in Graz, where he and Australian-born pianist Stacey Bartsch had just won second prize in the competition whose German name translates as Franz Schubert and the Music of Modern Times.
"The competition aims to juxtapose traditional classical and modern music," he explains, "to show traditional music in a new light. One-third of a candidate's program must be Schubert, another third must be modern works from a supplied list of composers and the final third is the candidate's choice among modern works."
Currently based in Heidelberg (where, conveniently, his sister lives), the baritone from Guelph, Ont., plans to spend part of his winnings by continuing his studies in German at the Goethe Institute. "I'm now starting to feel confident enough [with the language] that I can audition for agents in houses over here," he says. "My goal in the immediate future is to get a few last-minute guest contracts in smaller opera houses. I'd like to build my career now in a house in a festspiele kind of position, where you go for the whole year and you learn all the baritone roles. That would be really useful for me."
Winning competitions is becoming a bit of a habit for the Saskatchewan-born singer. Last year, he took the second grand prize and the Chalmers Prize for best Canadian performance in the Montreal International Music Competition, as well as second prize in the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Oslo. And he captured first prize in the vocal category, along with the People's Choice award, in the 2003 CBC/Radio-Canada Young Performers Competition in Calgary.
Lauded for his rich, round tone, McGillivray is a graduate of the University of Toronto's Opera Division and a former member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. "It was absolutely invaluable," he says of the latter experience. "Here in Europe, they ask you for the greatest hits: Papageno, Guglielmo, Figaro, Marcello and so on. At the Ensemble Studio, I got to understudy a few roles and be part of the rehearsal process with a major company. I needed the time to really discover my operatic voice, to grow as an opera singer, to fill the larger houses with sound over a large orchestra."
The genial baritone made his professional debut in 2003 as Aeneas in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and as Schlendrian in a staged production of Bach's Coffee Cantata. During the 2004-05 season, he appeared as Sid and as the Vicar in the COC's production of Britten's Albert Herring, and as Schaunard in that company's remount of La boheme. Also in 2004, he took on the role of Demetrius in the acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Tanglewood Festival, directed by David Kneuss.
But singing was not always part of his grand plan. "To be honest, I never considered it when I was a teenager at all," he says. "I was dead set on being a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. Other than playing trombone or tuba in bands, I wasn't really doing much music. In university, I studied history at first, and literature and politics. The whole time I was doing that, I was singing in choirs and then suddenly I got hired to do that, and got most of my yearly income from singing. That's when I first went to Lynn Blaser at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music, whom I knew from the Ontario Youth Choirm, where she was a vocal coach. Things started to click and the voice grew, so I decided that, instead of going to law school, I was going to go to the opera school. Luckily, I've been really blessed with success over the last few years, and that's confirmed that I made the right decision. …