Passing the torch: Calgary Opera will offer two versions of light comedy, The Elixir of Love

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When soprano Simone Osborne was training at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company 15 years ago, she had a rare opportunity to perform a lead role on a main stage.

The British Columbia-born performer, who won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2008 at the age of 21, sang the role of Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo as part of the company’s Studio Ensemble program. It was a one-night event, mounted simultaneously to a run by the professional singers, with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as Ilia.

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It was a relatively new phenomenon at the time and had just been instituted by the Canadian Opera Company as part of its studio ensemble program. It allowed students to not only participate in that single performance of a professional production but also to attend rehearsals and soak up all they could from the veterans.

“Across Canada, it is rare that you are going to see companies put up their young artists, singers in these big roles and give them the full performance with the full stage, costumes, the whole nine yards,” says Osborne.

In fact, there are only a handful of companies across Canada that have education or development programs for emerging singers, and only one organization other than the COC that allows them to take the stage for a full-professional show. That one would be Calgary Opera, which is allowing four members of its McPhee Artist Development program to be on the main stage.

Osborne, who has performed on stages around the world, will be enjoying a reversal of roles since her first lead with the COC 15 years ago. In Calgary Opera’s production of Gaetano’s Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore), which opens at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium on Feb. 3, she will take on the lead role of Adina for performances on Feb. 3, 7 and 9 opposite an international cast that includes American tenor David Portillo, Calgary baritone Andrew Love, Chinese bass-baritone Ao Li and soprano Christina Thanisch-Smith. But for the Sunday, Feb. 4 matinee, the production will feature a different cast made up of participants from Calgary Opera’s two-year McPhee Artist Development Program.

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“We get to be in one another’s room for rehearsals quite a lot, which is really nice and inspiring both ways,” Osborne says. “Both for us old-hags established artists and I hope for the young artists, too. We get to watch each other and steal little moves from each other. Hopefully, it means this show will be all the stronger for it.”

Toronto soprano Nicole Leung, who is in her second season of the McPhee program, will be taking on the role of Adina for the Sunday matinee, sharing the stage with fellow up-and-coming singers Elias Theocharidis, Connor Hoppenbrouwers and Braden Olsen. Thanisch-Smith, who is also a member of the McPhee program, will sing the role of Giannetta with both casts.

“From the emerging artists’ point of view, being able to sit in the room and just mime the rehearsals behind the principal cast, I feel like we are learning a lot,” Leung says. “We are learning the demands of what it takes to sing these larger roles, which are typically not given to younger singers.”

Leung isn’t completely new to the role of Adina, which she sang as a student at the Yale School of Music.

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Premiering in Milan in 1832, The Elixir of Love hasn’t been performed in Calgary for more than 30 years. The light comedy tells the story of the wealthy Adina, who is loved from afar by the bumbling but kind-hearted Nemorino. Alas, she prefers the handsome Sergeant Belcore. Nemorino buys a love potion from a “travelling doctor” in hopes it will help him win over Adina.

“I do feel like she comes across initially as the popular mean girl when you see her for the first time,” says Cheung about Adina. “But I think that’s because she has a wall up and doesn’t want to let love in. But eventually, she opens up and we see the soft side of Adina.”

“I think when I was younger in my career, I had a really hard time being the mean girl or being an unlikeable character because I was figuring out myself still and didn’t want the audience to walk away not liking me,” says Osborne, who has played Adina on numerous occasions. “Now I’m too old to care whether people like me or not, so I really enjoy playing into the unkind moments that Adina definitely has and leaning into that unlikeable, slightly cutting, slightly holier-than-thou side of Adina. But what I love about that is, by the end of the piece – spoiler alert – she really does soften and falls in love with her best friend and lets him in.”

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The gentle story, mixed with memorable music that includes well-known pieces such as the Nemorino-sung aria Una furtive lagrima – make The Elixir of Love a perfect gateway opera for those who may not be overly comfortable with the form.

“It’s the kind of opera where anyone – whether you love heavy metal or pop music – will leave the theatre humming these melodies because they are just so beautiful and, in a way, simple,” Osborne says. “It’s really lovely as a performer to sing a show that you know the audience is going to enjoy, that you know will feel familiar even if you’ve never been to a classical music concert to the opera. It’s just a fun, light story with gorgeous music that you will just fall in love with.”

In fact, she thinks people should see it twice.

“It’s really exciting to hear these young voices that are being trained in Calgary get up on that stage at the Jube and do it for themselves,” Osborne says. “It’s pretty exciting and I’m sure that afternoon performance will be particularly full of excitement and a buzz in the hall.”

Calgary Opera’s Elixir of Love will be performed Feb. 3, 4 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. The Feb. 4 matinee is at 2 p.m. and will be performed by members of the Calgary Opera’s McPhee Artist Development Program.

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