Sixty years ago – Opera in Toronto in 1947
Iain Scott explains how the COVC was the “third leg of the stool” when the Opera School was founded.
1947 was a pivotal year for Opera in Canada since it saw the creation of one of the most enduring and effective of all “town-gown partnerships”, that between the COVC and the Opera School.
Three years later, these two would become parents. Their successful collaboration would lead to the birth of a permanent professional performing company for Toronto.
Numerous octogenarians from both the “student” and “supporting” sides of this alliance are now able to look back with pride to the seedlings they planted when they were in their 20’s. Over the last six decades, they have watched them flourish impressively.
This article attempts to retell the story of those formative events of 1947 here in Toronto – and to place them in the wider context of this city at that time – and in the still broader context of the immediate post-war operatic world.
That year, other notable ‘firsts’ included the transistor, the frisbee and the microwave oven. This was the year in which Howard Hughes flew his Spruce Goose, when Jackie Robinson broke the colour-bar to enter major league Baseball, when the UFO supposedly landed at Roswell, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and when Princess Elizabeth was married. It was the year in which the term “Cold War” was coined, when Senator Eugene McCarthy’s campaign against communists in Hollywood was at its height, and when the “Baby Boom” began. (I took my first steps in 1947.)
While here in Toronto opera was taking its own baby steps, more established operatic institutions elsewhere were playing the role of midwife at the births of new works. In Europe, opera buffs remember 1947 for the first performances of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” (at Glyndebourne), and Francis Poulenc’s “Les Mamelles de Tiresias” (at Paris’ Opera Comique). In New York, Gian Carlo Menotti introduced his curtain-raiser “The Telephone” and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s “The Mother of Us All” was first performed at Columbia University.
Meanwhile, at the Verona amphitheatre, another important debut took place. A 24 year old soprano was making her first foray outside of Greece, singing the title role in Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”. Her name was Maria Callas.
On the continent of Europe, opera was in disarray. Nearly every opera house in Germany has been reduced to rubble and both the Vienna State Opera and La Scala, Milan had been badly damaged. Bayreuth was in limbo, the sacred hall being desecrated by vaudeville troop entertainments. Operatic communities might be rejoicing over the return of the 80 year old Arturo Toscanini and of exiled Jewish artists, but they were also troubled about how to respond to the recently-defeated regime’s effective use of music for propaganda. Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan were barred from conducting by de-nazification tribunals. Had Richard Strauss been a collaborator or a dupe? Could the core messages of Wagner’s music be rediscovered and reaffirmed? Europe was now ideologically split into East and West, but both communities made rebuilding their old opera houses and performance companies a higher than expected priority, given the competing demands from factories, bridges, schools and hospitals.
In London, opera’s roots were precariously thin and the art form had barely survived in the previous three decades, depending on personal funding from three remarkable men, Sir Thomas Beecham, Col. Eustace Blois and George Christie. Now that the war had been won, the new Labour government astutely decided to make the arts a part of their strategic investments for a new Britain. A series of revolutionary reforms, orchestrated by Lord Keynes, included the creation of a new arms-length Arts Council to channel state funds to the arts. Covent Garden, a dance hall during the war, was selected, over the fierce objections of the more proletarian (and perhaps more deserving) Sadler’s Wells, as a new “national institution” for Ballet and Opera. All state-funded operas were henceforth to be given in English and British (and Commonwealth) artists were to be given casting priority. The country slowly discovered that in Benjamin Britten it had produced its first major opera composer since Purcell. In just two of the important developments of the immediate post war years, his new English Opera Group left Sadler’s Wells to ally themselves with Glyndebourne and Rudolf Bing was sent north from Glyndebourne to establish a new International Music Festival in Edinburgh.
Here in Toronto, the ground was perhaps more fertile and similarly ready for a new start. Vocally, there had been a long choral tradition, the senior institution being the Mendelssohn Choir, founded in 1894, but with all vocal music resting on the foundation of local church choirs. The most prominent organist and chorus-master in town was Healey Willan, then 67 years old, who had captivated high Anglicans since his arrival in 1913.
For instrumental musicians, the summit of aspiration was the 40 year-old Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This had not disbanded during the war, but in 1947 it was only able to muster a dozen concerts. Since 1931 the Orchestra had been led by Sir Ernest MacMillan, now an energetic 55 year-old. He had been most visible and dominant musical personality in town for the previous three decades.
Just before the 1929 crash, Sir Ernest had tried to add opera to Toronto’s musical diet, introducing a couple of modest but innovative productions at the Conservatory, but in the intervening depression and war years, the prohibitive expense of opera had precluded much locally-developed activity. Toronto had to be content with occasional visits from the touring Carl Rosa Company. In 1947, early hopes that Toronto would be added to the Metropolitan Opera tour were dashed when the tour chose to visit Rochester instead. All was not lost, however, – Massey Hall played host to the Opera Company of Philadelphia that year.
What was the state of musical education? A huge influx of ex-soldiers, granted free tuition for higher education by a grateful McKenzie King government, created new challenges. Musical education was then largely overseen by the ubiquitous Sir Ernest MacMillan, who, through his twin roles at the University, claimed jurisdiction over the entire spectrum of musical training and development in Toronto. Sir Ernest provided leadership for both the degree-granting Faculty of Music, which offered focused academic musicology, research, theory and composition courses, and for the diploma-granting Conservatory of Music, which offered broad-based community and performance tuition in both instrumental and vocal categories.
As the wars in Europe and the Pacific were building to their cataclysmic close, a strategic review of Sir Ernest’s performance tuition division had been commissioned. This had been prompted by the upcoming Diamond Jubilee for the Conservatory (it had amalgamated with the University in 1886) and by the (successful in 1947) petition for a change of name to become the Royal Conservatory.
This review recommended three important changes – that the University should refocus Sir Ernest’s energies solely as Dean of the academic degree programs, that a new Principal should be recruited to oversee community and performance training, and that, within the performance division, a new “pre-professional finishing school” should be created – to build up Canada’s stock of performers who aspired to a professional on-stage career.
This third, well-intentioned initiative laid the foundations for considerable tensions and competition between the University and the Conservatory that continue to this day. It is still a matter of contention between the two institutions as to who should take precedence in professional performance training, exacerbated since the now-independent Conservatory formed its rival “Glenn Gould School”.
What happened next has been well documented in books by Ruby Mercer, Gwen Setterfield, Walter Pitman, Ezra Schabas and Carl Morey. Needing a general for this campaign, University President Sidney Smith approached the most celebrated expatriate Canadian musician of all, Edward Johnson. Although still fully engaged as General Manager of the Met, the 67 year old ex-tenor agreed to serve not only on the University’s Board of Governors, but also to become the new Chair of the Board for the venerable and soon to be Royal Conservatory.
Accepting the strategic review’s recommendations, Johnson’s first priority was to find someone to re-energize Toronto’s community and performance training programs. This search led to Ettore Mazzoleni, a 42 year old Swiss-Italian music teacher who had come to Canada from Oxford in 1929. Once anointed as the new Principal of the Conservatory, Mazzoleni moved quickly to hire his fellow-colleague from the music staff at Upper Canada College, Arnold Walter, a 45 year old German-speaking Moravian Czech who had been teaching at the school since 1937. Mazzoleni charged him with the imposing task of designing and creating a brand new “senior” performance school for the Conservatory.
The opportunity to build something from scratch was exciting. Arnold Walter speedily recruited four of the Conservatory’s one hundred and eighty performance teachers and secured agreement to focus the new institution on operatic training.
He designed the mission for his Opera School: to be a “trade school” for opera singers. Graduates were to be equipped with the vocal, dramatic, repertory and language skills they would need in order to earn a livelihood and, as an integral means to that end, were to be given essential practical experience in front of live audiences.
Dr Arnold Walter astutely understood that the foundations of every Opera School rest on a “three legged stool”: there must be a close interdependence between music instruction, dramatic coaching, and audience development. He recognized that the viability of his new venture would be determined by how well he filled the leadership roles for these three key portfolios.
- To lead the “first leg” , musical instruction, he recruited a fellow Moravian, the 39 year old Niki Goldschmidt, who agreed to move to Toronto as the school’s musical director.
- For the “second leg”, dramatic training, Walter recruited an Austrian stage director, Felix Brentano, who elected to commute from New York.
- For the essential, but often under-appreciated “third leg” of the stool … he landed the volunteer services of the visionary and persuasive Jean Chalmers, wife of one of the town’s most successful publishers.
The new Opera School opened its doors in September 1946 and one of the first students to enroll was a 24 year old soprano from Winnipeg, Mary Morrison. After a few month of training, Walter, and his internal lieutenants Goldschmidt and Brentano, decided that the students were ready for their first public performance. And so, on 16 December 1946 at Hart House, a program of operatic excerpts was offered, featuring 33 year old Andrew MacMillan, 23 year old Louise Roy and Mary Morrison. For many, the highlight of the evening was the stirring Prisoners Chorus from Fidelio, memorably sung by returning soldiers in uniform.
Later that inaugural academic year, 28-29 April 1947, the new Opera School prepared to mount its first full production. Since Arnold Walter and Niki Goldschmidt were both Moravian, it was, not surprisingly, a Czech opera, Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”. For this full production, the team decided to move to the spacious Eaton Auditorium. The costumes were provided by another young Czech immigrant, Oscar Morawetz, 30, recently appointed to teach music theory and composition at the Conservatory.
Jean Chalmers recognized that the core factor, which would make or break the fledgling institution, would be the support of the community. She knew that no career in public performance can be prepared for only in a tutorial room. Her key insight, that there is a reciprocal need between performers and audiences, drove her team’s efforts to build an acceptance for opera in Toronto. Her “Opera and Concert Committee of the Royal Conservatory Opera Company” rose to the challenge of selling tickets and ensuring that the new students would have an audience. Later, she and her team would recognize the long-term payoff in investing scholarship support for aspiring singers and in the audience’s knowledge and understanding of the art form.
Her tireless advocacy for the fledgling School led to the CBC’s agreement to broadcast five operas, using singers from the School, that year. The educative power of radio had been proven by New York’s Met since 1931 and by the Bell Telephone Hour since 1940. The following year, in 1948, the CBC went further and formed its own Opera Company.
It would take another three years of dedicated collaboration between Arnold Walter, Niki Goldschmidt and Jean Chalmers before the Opera School was ready to take its next developmental step. In 1950 Niki and Herman Geiger-Torel (who by this time had replaced Felix Brentano) were able to cobble together their first “Opera Festival” at the Royal Alex, and with that to spawn the Canadian Opera Company.
We are still in their debt, all of them, for the solid foundations they laid for our benefit those six decades ago.
Iain Scott teaches Opera appreciation courses – and leads Opera tours, frequently “in the footsteps of Verdi”.
His web-site is www.opera-is.com.