Over the Misty Mountains: the CCOC on The Hobbit The CCOC rehearses The Hobbit with Giles Tomkins. Photo: Gregory Finney.

Over the Misty Mountains: the CCOC on The Hobbit

Greg Finney

Continuing our coverage of the inaugural Toronto Festival of Children’s Opera (TFCO), I found myself visiting a rehearsal for the Canadian Children’s Opera Company’s upcoming production of Dean Burry’s opera The Hobbit, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic.

I was invited to view a run-through this past Saturday at First Unitarian Church at St. Clair Avenue West and Avenue Road near the Forest Hill area of Toronto. I took my seat and was immediately impressed with the patience and focus of the folks in the room. There were dozens of burgeoning artists running amok in a sort of controlled chaos. At the centre of all this was pure theatre magic - and at their breaktime I was lucky enough to chat with a few of the magicians.

Joining me were more from the next generation of opera superstars - Frances Quilty, Maaike van Benthem, Connor Ross and Gabriel Gough.

Here’s how our conversation went, and I’ll warn you, it’s very hard to discern that these kids are all under 40 years old. They speak with a lot of maturity and experience.

So, how did you guys all get started in opera?

Frances: I just really wanted to sing. I started here in grade one, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Maaike: I love to sing too, and I love acting and theatre. I came once as a guest for a “bring a friend” day when I was about 8. I thought, this choir is so fun, I want to come back here! So my mom signed me up.

Connor: In like grade one, the music teacher told my mom, “look, this kid can sing in tune, that’s really rare at this school.” So they signed me up for a choir, but I couldn’t sit still (*editor’s note: as was the case with yours truly), so I came here where I could act and sing and it’s been great.

Gabriel: When I was little I would sing really loudly at “O Canada” and things like that. I was also a really active kid so my parents signed me up to keep me busy and tire me out so they wouldn’t have to deal with me and it would tire me out. I’ve been in the CCOC ever since.

So now, tell me, what role you play and what’s your favourite part of the show?

Frances: I play Balin, one of the dwarves. My favourite part is when I come into Bilbo’s house and he’s expecting it to be Gandalf, but I just show up and eat all his food.

Maaike: I play, Thranduil, King of the Elves. My favourite part is probably the battle scene. We’re all so very angry with each other and it’s really intense.

Connor: I play Bombur, and I’m the fat, drunk dwarf. My favourite part of the opera is the part where we burst into Bilbo’s house and mess it up. Playing a dwarf is awesome, you don’t have to keep your cool, you can do whatever you want because they have no manners.

Gabriel: I’m the Lord of Laketown and I think the battle scene is great. When you’re working on it, it’s hard to see the image, but when you start to see it all coming together, it looks and feels awesome.

What’s been the hardest or most challenging part of learning operas?

Frances: I guess the hardest part is being there at all the rehearsals and acting the whole time, sometimes you just want to take a break, but you have to make yourself be in character.

Maaike: For me, it’s the part where we’re all sword dancing together. The way we all have to fit together, you can’t just do whatever you want - you have to stay in tempo, and still sing all the right music.

Connor: I think the hardest part was trying to figure out my character. For some characters, they’re really specific in what they want and need. But other characters, like mine, you have to figure it all out on your own. I had go on the Internet and find out a bunch of stuff on my character. (*editor’s note: See? even the young’uns do their research.)

Gabriel: You know, it’s really hard to sing while moving around. You lose all this technique and skill that you’ve learned just goes out the window so you have to teach yourself how to do both at the same time.

l-r: Connor Ross, Gabriel Gough, Giles Tomkins, Maaike van Benthem and Frances Quilty.

Like I mentioned after talking to a group of young performers from VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto, who just wrapped up their shows of The Sword in the Schoolyard, the future of opera is in great hands. As long as we have talent like the kinds I saw from CCOC and VIVA!, along with people like Dean Burry writing great scores to get kids into it early, I believe Toronto could be the next Vienna if we play our cards right.

Burry’s The Hobbit runs June 9-12 at Harbourfront Centre. You can get tickets here.

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