Magazine article Opera Canada

The CBC: For Audiences and Performers Alike, the Value of the CBC's Contribution to the Development of Opera in Canada Is Incalculable

Magazine article Opera Canada

The CBC: For Audiences and Performers Alike, the Value of the CBC's Contribution to the Development of Opera in Canada Is Incalculable

Article excerpt

IN 1942, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast nine "ballad" operas on Sunday evenings. Each program was only an hour in length, but the series bravely set out a standard of operatic production that was to have far-reaching effects. These were not recordings: there were live singers, live musicians, live conductors, live performances, which took place in a studio and were broadcast directly over the airwaves as they happened.

Among the works were pieces familiar at least in name, such as Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea, but also included were Vaughan Williams' Hugh the Drover and the now-quite-forgotten The Immortal Hour by Rutland Boughton. And as a foretaste of things to come, there were two new operas with Canadian associations: The Devil Take Her by the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin, then living in Vancouver, and the first CBC operatic commission, Transit Through Fire by Healey Willan.

If this series sounds modest, it must be remembered there was a war on, and there was a serious shortage of both money and personnel for live musical performances. The English operas were followed the next year, 1943, with a similar series of one-hour performances from Montreal, conducted by Jean Beaudet, which included Lakme, Romeo et Juliette, Manon, Carmen and Samson et Dalila. That same year, a series of 10 oratorios by Handel, all conducted by Sir Ernest MacMillan and apparently given in full, was broadcast from Toronto. If oratorios are not quite opera, they did offer singers public exposure and employment. It was not easy to be a professional in Canada when there was not a single opera company and concert engagements were limited.

Opera performances continued, with transmissions of French repertoire from Montreal and, inevitably in those days, Gilbert and Sullivan from Toronto. The orchestras of Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver were regularly broadcast, and, occasionally, featured operatic material. For example, Les concerts symphoniques de Montreal (as Montreal's orchestra was then called) performed the first act of Die Walkure in 1948, with Rose Bampton and the reigning heldentenor of the day, Set Svanholm.

With World War II finally over in 1945, the CBC moved into an increasingly important position in Canadian opera. In March 1946, it presented its new commission from Healey Willan, Deirdre of the Sorrows, a full-length Grand opera with Frances James in the title role and William Morton and Lionel Daunais in other major roles. Ettore Mazzoleni conducted. This indisputable evidence that the forces existed for full-scale productions led to the formation of the CBC Opera Company. Its productions remained studio productions, with occasional public performances in concert format, but in a country with no professional opera company, this was the opportunity for young singers to perform major roles in major operas. Not only were there the singers available and the musicians to back them up, two men had arrived in Toronto with the zeal and panache to pull off the new radio company. One was Nicholas Goldschmidt, who would conduct the majority of performances; the other indispensable figure was the producer, Terrance Gibbs. He was a young Englishman who had experience in the development in England of Decca Records' classical division. In 1948, at the age of 27, he moved to Toronto, where he became a force in the development of the CBCOC and, later, the CBC Symphony Orchestra. Goldschmidt and Gibbs had the blessing of the head of music, Geoffrey Wadding ton, who conducted a few performances.

On October 20, 1948, the CBCOC broadcast its first performance, La boheme, with singers who would become familiar to Canadians: Edmond Hock ridge (Marcello), James Shields (Rodolfo), Andrew MacMillan (Colline), Bernard Johnson (Schaunard), Mary Morrison (Mimi) and Beth Corrigan (Musetta). In the next decade, the CBC would produce more than 50 broadcasts of some 40 operas, providing inestimable opportunities for singers and listeners alike. …

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