It is hard to know where to start praising Opera York's new Artistic Director, tenor, Mark DuBois. His talent as a singer is only the beginning. From there are his professionalism, his ability to organize a show, his comedic touch during the evening's entertainment, and his profound commitment to every performance, which still only form part of the list of this remarkable man's artistic virtues.
Opera York's initial show of the season, put on at the Famee Furlane Friuli Hall in Woodbridge last Saturday evening, made it quite clear to the assembled audience that Opera York is in for a wonderful series under the direction of DuBois.
The show itself was titled "For the Love of a Tenor" and included the tenor, DuBois, himself, and tenor/cantor, Paul Kowarsky, as well as soprano, Donna Bennett, and mezzo-soprano, Gisèle Fredette. At the piano, keeping the singers in line, with humour and finesse, was Brian Finley.
DuBois was clearly interested in appealing to every taste in his choice of pieces, for the program was fully eclectic - from saucy to simply secular to quite sacred. No stone of musical preference was left unturned within the frame work of the artists and the setting. DuBois is very well aware of the cultural spread that encompasses the vast region of York and has accepted that variation as part of the job of Artistic Director. Hence, for his inaugural evening of entertainment, he delivered a possible synopsis of what future Opera York audiences can expect - that, as far as possible, the many cultural leanings, as it were, of the York region will influence the sort of shows to come.
As for Saturday evening itself, which DuBois opened with "Without a Song", we were left in no doubt about the tremendous talent of the people there to delight us. Any program of singing will give its participants the opportunity to show off, as they should. The great voices of Saturday's performance had several chances to "strut their stuff".
Paul Kowarsky is considered to be one of the world's most notable Cantors today. He earned this title again on Saturday not only with his beautiful and powerful voice, but also by bringing his own special repertoire with him and singing some sacred pieces in Hebrew. The most thrilling was the morning prayer, "Ad Heina". He did this as a duet of sorts with DuBois, who spoke the translation of the prayer as a voice over, from off stage, much like a "Melodrama".
Kowarsky also performed the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew, and composed the music for it, which he and DuBois sang together, in a very moving rendition.
For his special pieces, Kowarsky was accompanied by Nathan Rosen, who is the foremost accompanist for the Toronto Council of Cantors.
Naturally, as this was a tenor's evening, he also sang in English and Italian, with a fine offering of "I'll Walk with God". For me, the best of these was his Neopolitan duets with DuBois, particularly, "Santa Lucia".
Nor were the ladies behind in their delivery of splendid vocal displays.
The wonderful Gisèle Fredette, whose effervescence makes her appearance on stage as welcomed as chilled champagne on a hot summer afternoon, sang "La Vie en Rose" early in the show with her usual splendid sense of fun. In fact, all of Ms. Fredette's pieces were delivered with that special bubble that completely endears her to the least receptive member of any audience. She has a great habit of descending into the audience, while she is singing, to flirt with the men, always making a point to pick on DuBois' father, if he happens to be there. This cabaret style of singing is very winning, especially when done with such charm.
Donna Bennett's reputation as a superb soprano precedes her on any stage.
Her offering of "Villia" earned a pause of appreciation just before the clamour of applause. In the second half, she opened with "If I Loved You", which she sang as it, no doubt, was truly meant to be sung, her voice floating effortlessly to the high notes as though they were easy and part of her soul. She and her husband, the pianist, Brian Finley, are very involved with the Westben Arts Festival Theatre, basically a summer theatre, in Campbellford. Finley is the artistic director there. Last summer, the festival produced Finley's opera, "Samson", in which Ms. Bennett and DuBois starred. From that opera, they brought us "Fly by Me", a duet that has every reason to be a popular hit on any radio's chart. You will hear very much more of this artist's compositions without a doubt.
A further word should be included here about Finley, who is a consummate pianist in his own right. He was the pivot of the evening, keeping it flowing and unerringly conscientious of every singer's need.
During the course of the evening, DuBois treated us to, amongst others, "Danny Boy", "Maria", and "How to Handle a Woman". He has a way of "confiding" in his audience about his personal joys - the upcoming birth of a baby son, for example - that makes a connection between himself, as host, and the audience. This style of communicating with an audience strips away the formality of the event and almost puts us in his living room, as though we were more his invited friends than paying patrons.
Further than even this, the fact that all the performers of this evening are actually close friends with each other in their private lives brought a warmth to the show and added deeply to what made it special.
It seems to us that Opera York has "lucked in" with DuBois at their artistic helm. Be sure to keep up with news of further performances over the year and catch as many as you can. We are convinced they will all be winners, if this first one sets the standard.