Canadian Opera Premieres Alongside Monteverdi Classics

Baritone Phillip Addis talks 'Pyramus and Thisbe'
By Madalina Hubert
Madalina Hubert
Madalina Hubert
October 20, 2015 Updated: November 8, 2015

TORONTO—For its second production of the season, the Canadian Opera Company has taken the innovative step of pairing two short works by Claudio Monteverdi—the father of Western opera who developed the art form in the early 17th century—with a minimalist work by contemporary Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman.

Monk Feldman’s opera “Pyramus and Thisbe” is having its world premiere this month, while Monteverdi’s aria “Lamento d’Arianna” and his short opera “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” have been in the opera repertoire since 1608 and 1624 respectively.

Yet while 400 years separate the works, according to Canadian baritone Phillip Addis, the performers’ goal for all three is to present deeply felt emotions in a manner that is inward-looking and intimate.

Addis is singing alongside Canadian soprano Krisztina Szabó and tenor Owen McCausland, accompanied by the COC Orchestra and Chorus in a performance that strings the three works together into one hour and eight minutes, without intermission.

I would describe [‘Pyramus and Thisbe’] as almost like a Zen meditation on the state of these two lovers who eventually come to accept their situation.
— Baritone Phillip Addis

Addis says that although it is challenging to act in these different types of works, at the same time it is emotionally rewarding.

“The challenge in [Monteverdi’s operas] is that they’re very dramatic, very active, very emotional, and so we have to go to a deep place as actors to be vulnerable and show the struggle of these characters,” he says.

For Monk Feldman’s opera it is the opposite—as performers, they have to focus more on the internal journey of the characters, he explains.

“There the challenge is to restrain ourselves … I would describe [“Pyramus and Thisbe”] as almost like a Zen meditation on the state of these two lovers who eventually come to accept their situation.”

Canadian baritone Phillip Addis enjoys the challenge of performing operas composed 400 years apart in the Canadian Opera Company's pairing of classic and contemporary works. (Courtesy of the artist)
Canadian baritone Phillip Addis enjoys the challenge of performing operas composed 400 years apart in the Canadian Opera Company’s pairing of classic and contemporary works. (Courtesy of the artist)

All three works are troubled love stories. “Lamento d’Arianna” is a celebrated aria from Monteverdi’s lost opera “Arianna,” telling the story of a Cretan princess who is abandoned by her lover after helping him achieve an important victory.

“Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” tells of a duel taking place at night between a Christian and a Saracen (Muslim) warrior during the time of the Crusades. The Christian mortally wounds the Saracen only to painfully discover the warrior was none other than his beloved Clorinda.

“Pyramus and Thisbe,” the last piece, is based on the classical Greek tale of two star-crossed lovers divided by family hatred who served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“[The most rewarding part], especially in the new piece, was learning how to control my voice but also control my emotions in a way that they don’t get carried away,” says Addis who has found this type of minimalist vocal writing, emphasizing pure, long-held phrases, to be a good challenge for his voice training.

“We often have licence in the opera world to do everything really big from the heart, but sometimes we’re maybe covering up our weaknesses by making a big storm over the top of it. … In this case, you’re suddenly doing something very meditative and there’s nowhere to hide.”

Aspects of this meditative approach have also been incorporated into “Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.”

“In the Monteverdi [duel scene], we’re doing much more slow-motion acting and long-held physical poses. It’s like doing yoga while singing an opera,” says Addis.

“It’s a really good challenge and I feel like I’m actually more in touch with myself because of that process.”

From the audience’s perspective, Addis believes there is great value in pairing the two composers, writing 400 years apart.

“I’ve been to some galleries that deliberately juxtapose Baroque paintings with modern ones and sometimes you see completely new things in the old and you see what the inspiration is for the new when you have these two things side to side. I find that very inspiring in the visual arts and I’m certain it will work in this context, too.”

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Pyramus and Thisbe” runs Oct. 20 – Nov. 7. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca