Calgary Concert Opera returns with regal love triangleInterview
After two years away due to the COVID pandemic, Calgary Concert Opera Company returns with a two-night production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The co-production with Ontario-based Opera By Request was originally intended to celebrate 70 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. With the monarch’s recent passing, the production will now serve as a memorial to the Queen.
“We’re going to dedicate a performance to her living memory,” says mezzo-soprano Barbara King, co-founder of Calgary Concert Opera, who is also starring as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham in the opera. “We will definitely have a moment of silence to dedicate to her life.”
King admits she was “really scared” to come back with Roberto Devereux as the company’s first production after COVID. “Everything kept getting shut down, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” says King. “But it came to a point where we just decided to do it, and to ride the wave. If things happen, we’ll adjust. It’s been really exciting, but it’s tough working around all these possibilities relating to COVID.”
King admits she had limited knowledge of Roberto Devereux before deciding to collaborate with Opera By Request for the production. One of Donizetti’s three operas dedicated to Tudor-era queens (alongside Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena), Roberto Devereux tells the story of Devereux, the once-favoured Earl of Essex loved by both the Duchess of Nottingham and Queen Elizabeth I. Two guesses on who he chooses and the consequences of his decision, keeping in mind that this IS opera.
“The music is absolutely beautiful,” gushes King. “When I heard the types of voices that are needed to do this opera, we have so many of them right here in Calgary, which is fantastic.”
In addition to King, the cast of Calgary-based principals includes Aaron Bartholomew as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh, Valentin Borsu as Lord Cecil, and Oliver Peplowski as both a Page and Servant of Nottingham. Edmonton-based Bertrand Malo plays the Duke of Nottingham with the titular role of Devereux sung by Mexican tenor Ernesto Ramírez, in his company debut with Calgary Concert Opera.
“Ernesto has actually done the role with the Canadian Opera Company,” explains King. “He’s really excited at tackling this role again.”
Of course, as part of a trilogy devoted to Tudor queens, the role of Queen Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux requires a singer of considerable skill and presence. For this production, Edmonton-based soprano Cara McLeod will don the Crown.
“Cara was a little hesitant at first, but I said to her ‘I know you can do this, I want to give you this opportunity to tackle this role’,” says King. “With all these characters, Donizetti was really able to get into their more human and intimate feelings instead of playing to archetypes. It’s not like Cara comes out and is all royal all the time. It will be nice for the audience to see those different sides that everyone brings to their respective roles: when they’re ‘royal’ and when they’re more human. Everyone is going to feel something they felt before and relate to it.”
Concert format: how less can be more
King was introduced to performing opera in a concert format after being cast as Romeo for a 2009 production of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi with Ontario-based Opera By Request. A year later, she co-founded Calgary Concert Opera Company with her business and life partner Chris Gieck, with her mother Grace in tow as principal accompanist, after seeing an opportunity to offer performance experience to singers based in Western Canada who may not be able to travel to bigger centres to sing a principal role of this magnitude. And with a concert format, she says the onus is truly on the singer to deliver an emotionally captivating performance without relying on physical acting.
“Concert format is a really straightforward and uncomplicated way of performing these works because you can really focus more on the music and especially the text, which as singers, is what we do,” says King. “We’ll still get into character by portraying all your emotions on your face and how you sing. It really offers an opportunity to explore aspects and nuances with the text and the music. A small word such as ‘what’ or ‘why’ or ‘but’ can have such a different feel in the context of what we’re singing.”
King also maintains her link to Bill Shookhoff of Opera By Request, who has come to Calgary numerous times as Music Director for a CCOC production, including I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (2012), Rigoletto (2014), La Gioconda (2015), Samson et Dalila (2019) and now this production of Roberto Devereux.
“This production of Roberto Devereux will be a really intimate performance for the audience,” says King. “In this format, you’ll really feel the emotions Donizetti has woven so brilliantly in his music.”