Concerts by the Canal: Opera front and centre in finals of Brian Law competition

Gerald Finley is the patron of the competition. Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

This Saturday six singers will seek the top prize in the biennial Brian Law Opera Competition in a concert in Southminster United Church as part of the Concerts by the Canal series. The competition is one of the key activities conducted by the National Capital Opera Society.

The six young singers — Joel Allison, bass-baritone, Carolyn Beaudoin, soprano, Ryan Hofman, baritone, Jennifer Olenic, alto, Danielle Vaillancourt, mezzo-soprano and Jeanine Williams, soprano — stand a chance of joining a long list of talented singers who have begun national and international careers in this region.

The opera society itself was founded in 1983 after the National Arts Centre cancelled its annual summer opera festival. The organization had hoped to get that festival reignited but that has not happened. Today it works hard to help maintain interest in the form in the community through opera-on-DVD showings, illustrated talks and newsletters and occasional opera tours and social events.

The competition and an associated fund are named after Brian Law, who was a crucial figure in the development of music, especially classical music in the Ottawa area starting when he arrived from Britain in 1965. Before he moved to New Zealand, he held many posts in the community including as the assistant conductor and chorus master of the NAC’s opera festival.

He was also the music director of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, the Ottawa Choral Society, and founder of Thirteen Strings. He was also the organist and choirmaster at St. Matthew’s Church and made it a centre for musical achievement in Ottawa.

The very first competition was held in 1993 with Law in attendance. The competition has had two patrons. The first was Maureen Forrester. When she died, international opera star Gerald Finley took on the job. Over the years many talented singers have taken part in this competition including Joshua Hopkins,  Philippe Sly, Joyce El-Khouri, Wallis Giunta, Yannick-Muriel Noah and Julie Nesrallah.

On Saturday, the 2017 finalists will each sing three pieces drawn from Classical operas such as those by Mozart, Bel canto such as those by Donizetti, Romantic such as those by Massenet, and Verismo such as those by Puccini. Three jurors, from Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa will pick the winners and runners-up.  The winner gets $5,000. The second place singer receives $3,000 and third place takes home $1,000. The runners-up get $500 each.

For Murray Kitts, a retired high school teacher, his role as president of the society is part of a life-long love affair with classical music.

“I can honestly say that I was attracted to classical music as a child. One only had to listen to the CBC and there were opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons,” he wrote in response to questions from ARTSFILE. 

“There were movies which featured excerpts from operas. Later when I attended high school and college in Ottawa I loved being in plays. From music appreciation chairman in high school I went on to be the graduate school representative to the Hart House Orchestra at the University of Toronto. As a board member of The Border Concert Association (in Fort Frances, Ontario and International Falls, Minnesota) I encouraged hiring the touring company of the Canadian Opera Company to perform annually if possible.

“To answer you question more directly. I loved the theatre and continued appearing in Little Theatre productions in Fort Frances where I spent the largest part of my teaching career.

“Opera combines all the magic of live theatre, often ballet, and such great music to underline and bring out the subtleties of the drama. The first opera I saw on stage was at the Royal Alex in Toronto with John Vickers and Regina Resnick in Bizet’s Carmen. After that I was hooked for life.”

For the competition, Kitts says he receives and verifies “applications, arranges for the first jury to meet and pick the finalists, acts as a go between for the finalists, receives their choices for the competition, sets up the final program and adds annotations to the selections so that the audience will have a general idea of the meaning of what is being sung.”

From his perch as a fan and as an active volunteer, Kitts has seen opera come and mostly leave Ottawa, the latest departure being the abrupt demise of Opera Lyra in 2015.

He says he believes that opera needs a great deal of financial support and that the federal government “has an obligation to see opera is provided in our capital city. It is a matter of international prestige.”

Brian Law Opera Competition
Concerts by the Canal
Where: Southminster United Church
When: Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.