Love and empathy at the opera
TORONTO—The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of “Arabella” marks the third time soprano Erin Wall performs the title role in Richard Strauss’s early 20th century opera.
Her first time was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2012, followed by a run at New York’s The MET in 2014. However, this performance run at the COC is particularly special. Not only is it taking place in her hometown of Toronto, but it is the first time the COC is presenting this opera.
First performed in 1933 in Dresden, Germany, “Arabella” has since been restaged many times in Europe, particularly Austria, Germany, and France. However, it has had a more limited run in North America where audiences are not as familiar with the story or with Strauss’s operas in general, notes Wall.
“I think a lot of the big opera companies in North America need a big star to sell tickets because it’s a fairly unfamiliar opera to North American audiences. They haven’t heard of it,” she says.
“It’s expensive to produce as well. Strauss operas are pretty expensive to produce—large chorus, large orchestra. It’s a bit more of a risk, definitely.”
Wall, who has been singing some of Arabella’s arias in concert for the past 15 years, says the music is particularly appealing to her, noting that Strauss has done a good job in composing for the soprano voice.
“The writing is very lyrical and there are a lot of really beautiful lines,” she says.
“It’s harmonically very rich, always taking unexpected turns harmonically. And it’s very lush—the orchestration is always very full and very beautiful. He wrote other operas that were more tonally adventurous like “Elektra” or “Salome,” but this is definitely more in the “Rosenkavalier” genre of being very romantic,” says Wall, adding that the music is also very elegant.
Although it is a well-paced opera, Wall says she finds the role of Arabella vocally challenging particularly because of the length of the role. However, the greatest difficulty has been neither the music nor the character, but rather the clothing—more specifically the corset, which affects her body and her breathing quite significantly.
“I just got home 10 minutes ago from the chiropractor where she put all of my ribs back in place,” she says. “For me right now the biggest challenge in the show is to sing some of the sections where I’m singing quite strenuously and I’m also wearing the corset while sitting down. Those three things together are a big challenge.”
Set in Vienna in the mid-19th century (the COC production directed by Tim Albery is set at the turn of the 20th century), the story follows an aristocratic family with two daughters. The eldest, Arabella, must choose a wealthy suitor to save her family from poverty. She is courted by many, but has her eye on a mysterious stranger she sees on the street. Her sister Zdenka is a tomboy who runs around dressed as a man, but she soon falls in love with one of Arabella’s admirers. Complications ensue, making for mistaken identities, comedy, and drama.
“It’s a little bit of a romantic comedy,” says Wall.
“[Arabella] is a young girl facing a dilemma—she needs to marry for wealth because her family is impoverished, but she also wants to marry someone she has feelings for,” she explains.
The soprano finds she can learn something from playing this part. “I find being Arabella really enjoyable because she’s so calm and so certain and it can’t help but infect me in a certain way to become more like that,” she says.
As someone who, like Arabella, has a younger sister, Wall also connects with the theme of sisterly love depicted in the opera. “[There’s] this wonderful loving relationship between the two sisters, which really appeals to me. … I have a strong relationship with my little sister and I identify very strongly with this idea of wanting my younger sister to find happiness,” she says.
In the COC production, the role of Zdenka is performed by fellow Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, with whom Wall is friends; their young daughters are close in age and they get together for playdates sometimes.
“We have a good relationship on and off the stage. Working with Jane is wonderful because she is a consummate musician. She is always so incredibly well-prepared. And our voices—I feel it’s very easy to sing with her—we’re able to blend with each other very effortlessly. She is wonderful on the stage as well. She has great stage instincts. She’s a great colleague,” says Wall.
Born in Calgary to American parents, Wall grew up in Vancouver where her parents worked as symphony musicians. She subsequently worked in the United States before moving to Toronto nine years ago. She has since sung with the COC several times, noting that as a professional singer she is particularly fortunate to be working in her home city.
“You can’t put a price on it because I have kids and a husband, and when I’m away, I miss them desperately.”
Wall, who played in the orchestra hall as her parents rehearsed, is now also bringing her children (aged 8 and 4) to watch her in rehearsal, which she says they enjoy. “You never know what will captivate them and what will bore them.”
Wall shared her perspective on the value of opera today.
“I think it brings beauty to people’s lives and really, these stories, when you boil them down to their essence, they’re stories about our humanity,” she says.
“To me when I go to see an opera and it’s done well, it puts me back in touch with my heart and my humanity, and I hope that it would have that value for other people as well.”
Seeing an opera is not necessarily that different from going to see a movie or a play, Wall notes.
“The only difference is that the story is hopefully elevated by the music,” she says. “For me that’s what’s so priceless about it. The music adds a whole other level of awareness. The music can tell you things about the people onstage that they’re not telling you—what they’re really thinking or feeling—or [it] can give you a sense of what’s going on without using words. I find that really exciting, really uplifting.”
Coming from a musical family, classical music and opera were always present in Wall’s life as a child. While she enjoys listening to different types of music, she says classical music “stands the test of time.”
“I find [opera] puts me in touch with my emotional side, with my heart, and it’s a bit of a respite from daily life for me. It’s a window into different feelings and different lives.”
The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” runs until October 28 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca
Soprano Erin Wall will also be performing in concerts across Canada in the coming year. For more details, visit: www.erinwall.com