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History of Opera Performance in Canada

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Before the middle of the nineteenth century, opera was rarely performed in Canada. Most Canadian cities did not have adequate facilities or financial resources to produce local opera productions, and Canadian musicians in general lacked the training and expertise to mount a full-scale opera.

Photograph of Adelina Patti, 1903

Adelina Patti, 1903

By 1839, however, opera companies and famous singers from abroad began to include Canada in their touring itinerary. On October 21 and 23, 1851, the legendary Swedish soprano Jenny Lind sang arias from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda, Weber's Der Freischütz, and Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable in St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto. Spanish opera diva Adelina Patti sang in Toronto in 1855 and 1860. The Metropolitan Opera visited Montréal with the stellar Emma Calvé in Carmen in 1899 and 1901, and again in 1911 with Emmy Destinn in the title role of Aida conducted by Toscanini.

The Russian Grand Opera toured Canada in 1922 and 1923, presenting operas such as Mussorgski's Boris Godunov, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. Singers from the Royal Academy of Music and the Theatre Royal in London visited Montréal and Toronto several times between 1939 and 1949, performing excerpts from operas such as La Cenerentola, La Sonnambula and Il Matrimonia segreto.

As developments in steamship and railway travel progressed, foreign opera companies travelled to Canada on a regular basis, and began bringing their productions to the Western provinces. The Hess Opera from England performed Iolanthe in Winnipeg in 1883. Vancouver audiences heard Wagner's Lohengrin in 1891 performed by the Emma Juch English Opera from the United States. In 1899, a small group of singers from the Metropolitan Opera in New York performed The Chimes of Normandy in Winnipeg and Regina. The New York-based San Carlo Opera Company also visited Canada regularly between 1918 and 1945, presenting in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montréal and Toronto.

These foreign troupes often featured Canadian opera singers who had left Canada to pursue singing careers in Europe. Canadian diva Emma Albani and her company toured Toronto and Montréal in 1883; Montréal, Québec, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton and London in 1889-90; and Halifax, St. John's, Québec, Montréal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria in 1896. Soprano Florence Easton visited Montréal in 1904 with the Savage English Grand Opera Company, appearing as Gilda in Rigoletto. Éva Gauthier visited Canadian cities several times, performing in her native Ottawa in 1924 and on July 1, 1927, when she sang for the sixtieth anniversary of Canada's Confederation.

Concerts and opera productions that featured returning Canadian singers were well attended in general, but for the most part, Canadian singers enjoyed greater success outside of Canada -- in England, Italy, France and the United States. Before the middle of the twentieth century, prospects for opera singers in Canada were very limited. There were few qualified voice teachers and very few performing opportunities for aspiring singers.