Pellegrini company keeps opera burning brightly in Ottawa

Vincent Thomas is the artistic director Pellegrini Opera.

The flame of opera is still burning in Ottawa thanks to Vincent Thomas and his mom.

Maria Pellegrini founded her eponymous company in 2004. The soprano has had a respected international career on the opera stage. When she moved to the city to take care of her ailing father, she opened a studio and started teaching.

Eventually student recitals turned into something more serious. After all she had been closely connected to the founding of Opera Hamilton with her husband artistic director Steven Thomas. 

As time has moved on, Pellegrini Opera has become more and more established and four years ago, the mantle was passed to Maria’s son Vincent Thomas. He was a founding member of the company and a performer in the very first opera they staged, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. 

Taking the top job “ wasn’t something I was seeking,” Vincent said in an interview. “In 2010, mom wanted to revisit Don Giovanni and wanted me to sing it again.” Vincent is a bass-baritone. But he was a bit reluctant and found himself thinking he liked having a diverse career. Being an opera singer requires a singular focus and to be frank, he didn’t want to start over again as an opera singer.

“I always have to have a hand in another bowl.”

But it made sense to be the artistic director.

So it suits that while Pellegrini Opera isn’t yet at the level where it is a full-time pursuit he maintains other work in the performing arts world. It’s partly practical, of course. He’s got a family.

“I do think there is room for a thriving opera company in Ottawa. As long as people aren’t expecting $150,000 salaries, we can probably make this work.

But it ain’t easy. “There is so much out there to spend money on, so many interesting things to do. There have been people who have told me straight up they’d rather go to a movie. I think they are missing something.”

Thomas’ resume shows he has always explored different options as a performer. But no matter what route he has taken, singing and acting have always played a major role in his life. How could they not when mom was a world class singer and dad was a opera stage director.

Vincent’s self-described start as an actor happened at age 6, in the family home, where he was like many children who perform for visiting adults. And it continued into high school music and musicals.

He also played the trumpet well and that was the path he started to go down first, attending the jazz school at Humber College in Toronto. Throughout his 20s he played with a variety of ensembles from rock to big band to jazz … “anybody who needed a trumpet player.”

But the acting bug wouldn’t let go. In high school, he also took kendo which is a Japanese martial art involving the use of bamboo swords.

In his first year in college a friend said: “‘Let’s go to Medieval Times” for fun’.”

After seeing the dinner theatre performance by knights on horseback, Thomas was impressed. “This was the coolest thing ever. I had to try it.”  So he put in an application to be a knight. He was hired the next day as a trumpet player, but that got him in the door. Still he wanted more. 

“Basically I bugged them until I convinced them that I had some skill on a horse. And I did. I would go riding when I was young. I was comfortable and willing to try.”

The organizers eventually gave the kid a shot and for the next seven years he was waving a lance around, wielding a sword and playing his horn. 

The skills are transferable and Thomas moved into theatre and stage fighting with opera companies (which included a trip to Macao, China with a French company) and finally into movies and television.

Meanwhile, Thomas has assumed a larger role with Pellegrini Opera finally becoming artistic director in the past few years.

Normally Pellegrini does one big production piece a year. As well, they do fund-raisers to help build up the bank account and expand the company’s horizons.

“If we can get to a point where we are all winning, then Ottawa is only going to benefit,” Thomas said.

It has been a struggle for opera in the capital. The recent failure of Opera Lyra underlines that reality.

Thomas knows that and he is very careful about the performances he does and so far so good. The company does operate in the black, he said.

“Careful planning is the key. Sometimes you can take a risk, but you have to know when. You have to pick your battles.”

He is an optimist at heart and that outlook certainly helps.

“I guess I went in a circle in my life. Obviously I was born and grew up in that environment. I remember attending rehearsals where Luciano Pavarotti was singing Rigoletto.

He also hearkens back to the days when his mother and father started Opera Hamilton in the early 1980s.

“There wasn’t much day care in those days, so I went to rehearsal and was told to shut up and don’t move. I watched and some of it rubbed off.”

He recalls meeting Pavarotti.

“I was five or six. It was after a performance and everyone went out. He called me over. He was this huge man and I sat on his knee and he asked me if I wanted to be an opera conductor when I grew up.

“The words of a five years came out. I said, ‘You smell,’ then I jumped off him and ran away. My mom was displeased. He laughed.

“I’d like to go back and apologize,” but that’s no longer possible.

The company will perform Madama Butterfly in concert this Saturday at the Ukrainian Hall on Byron Avenue featuring a quality list of soloists including Maria Knapik singing the role of Cio Cio San. Also on the bill: Tenor Corey Arnold as Pinkerton, Danielle Vailliancourt as Suzuki and James Levesque as Sharpless. The music director is Ottawa’s Andrew Ager.

It’s been a bit of a journey this year. Pellegrini has usually performed in Dominion-Chalmers United Church, but the handover to Carleton University, renovations in the sanctuary and the pressure to have a space forced the change in venue . 

The Ukrainian Hall has fewer seats but, Thomas said, “it’s a nice space and it will work for what we are doing.”

“We wanted to have a show to keep continuity.”

Next year they will perform Romeo and Juliet likely at Centrepointe Theatre, he said. 

“This will be the full nine yards. It’s my favourite opera musically.”

Pellegrini Opera presents Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
When: Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ukrainian Banquet Hall, 1000 Byron Ave.
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.