Seventeen Voyces goes for Baroque with English opera Venus and Adonis

Kevin Reeves, second row from the back and second in from the right, is surrounded by some members of his musical community. Photo: Shad Young

The Ottawa choir Seventeen Voyces is, with the Ottawa Baroque Consort and the ‘Makin’ Moves: Children’s Dance Theatre, putting on a performance of a rarely heard English Baroque opera. ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb asked the choir’s director, Kevin Reeves, why.

Q. You are staging Venus and Adonis. Can you tell me about the plot/story of the piece.

A. The story is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses:  While embracing her son Cupid, Venus is scratched by one of his arrows and falls in love with the beautiful youth Adonis. The audience first sees the pair in bed, when suddenly, Adonis hears a hunting horn and scampers off with spear in hand, so to speak.  (Hard to imagine this was premiered at a private girls’ school in the late 17th century). Venus isn’t crazy about this interruption, but encourages him to have a night out with the boys because she’s so in love with him. In the meantime, for comic relief, Cupid actually has a spelling class with a bunch of smaller cupids and also ridicules vain, and silly people — likely an editorial comment by the composer against certain people in the King’s court. As it turns out, Adonis isn’t a very good hunter and is fatally wounded by a wild boar, but manages to stagger back to Venus so that he can sing a little while longer and die in her arms. She transforms his blood into a flower, has a good cry, then goes home to watch the Senators defeat the Penguins … or at least, listens to the game on radio since television hadn’t been invented yet.

Q. Why did you decide to do the work?

A. Some years ago I created a show featuring the life and music of Henry Purcell, with local actor Todd Duckworth as the composer.  For whatever reason, it struck a chord with Ottawa audiences, attracting about 500 people. I consider Purcell one of the greats in all of music history. His music is pure, beautifully structured and can be emotionally wrenching. His opera Dido & Aeneas was directly influenced by his teacher’s opera — essentially the first opera in the English language — and that was John Blow’s Venus & Adonis. I had juxtaposed excerpts of both operas in the Purcell show so the audience could hear the similarities.

The music is charming, rarely performed and gives us yet another excuse to work with Olivier Henchiri’s excellent Ottawa Baroque Consort — something which has become an annual collaboration. We’re also really looking forward to working with ‘Makin’ Moves — Children’s Dance Theatre, and its gifted director, Michelle McKernan. There will be about 10 girls portraying little cupids and other characters, dancing specific movements.

Q. Who is John Blow?

Dr. John Blow (1649-1708) was a very prolific and popular musician both in church and in the court.  (I imagine he received his doctorate in composition). He started as a choirboy, and became a fine keyboardist, eventually securing positions at Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and finally the Chapel Royal — the highest position in the land.

While at Westminster, Blow essentially told the mucky-mucks he was handing the job to the 21 year-old Purcell, because he felt he was better for the job. Purcell at the time was the Abbey’s organ tuner.  The two became very good friends and colleagues until Purcell’s death in 1695, which devastated Blow. An Ode on the Death of Mr. Henry Purcell became a more famous composition than Venus & Adonis.

Q. Tell me a bit about the soloists working with you on this piece.

A. Another reason to choose this opera was to show off some impressive, young, upcoming singers in Bronwyn Thies-Thompson, and Joel Allison — past choristers of Seventeen Voyces.  I once taught Joel when he was a treble at St. Matthew’s, so it’s a little startling to hear the present size of his voice.  He’s already getting some plum roles and I imagine his star will rise very quickly. Bronwyn has a clear, focused voice which is perfect for early and contemporary music. She also reads music like a demon which is incredibly useful when navigating various gigs every week. Her entire family is musical and her dad plays viola in the NAC Orchestra.

Both starred in Seventeen Voyces’ production of Telemann’s Don Quixote a couple of years ago, and that’s when I realized I had both Venus and Adonis right under my nose.

Interestingly, Venus & Adonis was premiered at a girl’s school, so the roles of Adonis and Cupid were originally played by females.  In our case, Cupid is played by Ryan Patrick McDonald, countertenor, originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and presently studying with (Ottawa native) Daniel Taylor at the University of Toronto.

Q. Seventeen Voyces is always trying something different. Can you comment on why you do that and the purpose of your group?

A. It’s our 20th anniversary and we started as a choir that performed both known and obscure works of the Renaissance and Baroque, hence the spelling of Voyces.  But I became restless living so far in the past — especially when we were being given works written for us — so we moved right up to the 21st century, including pop and jazz. Our accompanist, Andrew Ager, a well-known composer in his own right, started throwing compositions at us, including a comic opera based on Casanova.

Seventeen Voyces now seems best known for providing live sound tracks to a dozen silent classics with organist Matthew Larkin accompanying.  Alongside Matthew’s Christ Church Cathedral choir, we recently performed excerpts of Handel’s Israel in Egypt to Cecil B. DeMille’s original 1924 film — The Ten Commandments. Last year, we teamed up with the Ottawa Choral Society to present the original Ben Hur — a truly epic film, while 140 choristers sang Carl Orff’s monumental Carmina Burana.

Arts groups of any kind are very difficult to sustain and are constantly searching for their place in the cultural world. I’ve always felt the need to create an event so enticing each member of the audience should be damning themselves if they happen to miss it. It should be a creation which has a unique entertainment value, but is still imbued with artfulness. Seventeen Voyces’ mandate is to present ‘works off the beaten track,’ and by attracting new audiences with our concoctions of theatre, film and music, I believe that’s what we’re accomplishing.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

I began my musical training as a pianist, then joined St. Matthew’s Church Choir as a treble when Brian Law ruled the music scene in Ottawa. The movie-making bug hit when I was 10 and I’ve been dabbling in some form of film or video production ever since. In a former life I was a cartoonist/caricaturist for the Toronto Star, publishing two books and once toyed with the idea of becoming an animator. While living in Toronto, I sang for a living, and became a ‘special-skilled’ extra, becoming a stand-in for stars such as Liam Neeson. Upon returning to Ottawa — essentially to work in the television industry making documentaries and children’s drama — I discovered the city no longer had a concert chamber choir, and Seventeen Voyces was born … in a pub.  A few years ago, my first full-length opera was written — based on the weird and wonderful adventures of Grey Owl and Anahareo — which suited my Northern Ontario heritage and sense of humour. I’ve been pitching it across Canada ever since and will be happy even if it is produced posthumously.

Venus and Adonis
Seventeen Voyces

Where: Southminster United Church
When: Friday, May 26, Saturday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: seventeenvoyces.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.