Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Taking Centre Stage

The Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition is the Canadian Idol of the opera world

Iain MacNeil, Karine Boucher and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure — the top three at this year's Canadian Opera Company's Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition. Credit: Michael Cooper

I have no idea what he’s singing. I hope that I have my Julia Roberts Pretty Woman moment soon. Remember? Julia’s all dolled up (like me), and even though the language of the opera she is attending is foreign to her (like me), the singer’s emotion washes over her and takes her away. Perhaps I’ll break down crying (like she did) and some Richard Gere type will see me and hand me a handkerchief (and money). But no, that moment does not come. Though I’m enthralled by tenor Jean-Michel Richer as he effortlessly pipes deep, booming words into the auditorium of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts accompanied by the house orchestra, all I can think about is pepperoni. Not those little tiny sticks in corner stores, but those big, thick, heavy tubes of meat you see hanging from the rafters of butcher shops. Pepperoni. It works great as a pizza ingredient, but not all ingredients go great on a pizza, just like tonight. Not all eight young opera hopefuls competing for prizes from the Ensemble Studio via the Centre Stage Ensemble Studio Competition Gala will be great onstage. Perhaps the large selection of cold cuts and cheese provided before the competition have clouded my mind. Maybe it’s Rocher’s beefy good looks. It’s probably the champagne.

I’m clearly not the only one a bit bubbly as the host, singer/songwriter/composer Rufus Wainwright, takes to the stage, after the COC’s general director, Alexander Neef, welcomes us. Wainwright introduces the judges and explains the competition: “Audience members can vote for their favourite performer, as well for the Audience Choice Award. My, how mainstream," he says slyly. The audience laughs in spite of themselves. “Perhaps Miley Cyrus will make an appearance.” The audience roars to life. Yes, let's make fun of Miley! Poor girl wouldn’t have a hammer to lick against this next generation of opera stars, who have come from all across North America to compete in this third year of competition. Besides Rocher, finalists include soprano Lara Secord-Haid, mezzo-soprano Francesca Corrado, bass-baritone Nathan Keoughan, mezzo-soprano Rachel Wood, soprano Karine Boucher, tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, mezzo-soprano Emma Char and bass-baritone Iain MacNeil. All the talented ladies have over-the-top drag-queen-worthy gowns, while the men are all styling in well-tailored suits and oddly long, naturally wavy hair. It’s not a hippie thing. I think it’s a prerequisite that you must be able to look like (and play) a man who lived in the 1600s in order to be a male opera lead.

The performances are all equally engrossing. Some sing German, some Italian, and they all go over well onstage. While waiting for the judges’ results, Grammy-nominated and Juno Award–winner Wainright entertains with a few of his own songs, including, “Les Feux d’Artifices,” from his opera Prima Donna. With the votes tabulated, the bouquets of flowers are presented. Tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, from Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, wins the second prize of $3,000, and bass-baritone Iain MacNeil, from Brockville, Ontario, is awarded the third prize of $1,500. Besides winning the top spot (and $5,000), Karine Boucher (in her solid-gold gown) also goes on to win the audience vote (and another $1,500, though I didn’t vote for her). I hope that shut Wainwright up. We have taste too. Okay maybe not me, because my guy didn’t win. Probably because all I was thinking about was pepperoni, big thick slabs of pepperoni. Turns out Richer was singing in Italian. Coincidence?