If you’re a small-town queer kid looking to avoid confrontations with a bully, Douglas Rice has a tip for you. When it came to skirting after-school ass-kickings, the Fort McMurray native simply advised his tormentors he wouldn’t be able to make it because he had singing lessons to attend.
“It was my easy way out,” the Toronto musician laughs. “I got through school with non-confrontational ways of coping, which made things easier for me. I was actually a pretty confident kid, largely because I was involved in the arts. Without those programs I probably would have become a very different person.”
It’s no accident Rice studied music, beginning with voice at five and piano a few years later; his musically inclined parents both played several instruments and understood the transformative power of arts education. Though they encouraged him in many directions, including three ill-fated seasons of hockey, music was the key in both understanding and accepting his identity.
“From a young age I was aware I was different,” he says. “Music became a positive way to differentiate myself, especially since I was a terrible skater. It also introduced me to a community of like-minded kids I could connect with.”
Not only did music allow an easy way out of dangerous situations, it provided an exit strategy from Alberta altogether. Rice left at 19 to study vocal performance at Wilfred Laurier University, and after a stint at the New England Conservatory in Boston, relocated to Germany, where he spent the next five years performing, composing and teaching. Developing a name with his fluid tenor pipes (and perhaps his chiselled features), he became a sought-after performer throughout Western Europe before relocating to Toronto six years ago.
His 50-member vocal ensemble, The Velvet Curtain, is currently hard at work on an upcoming concert event. Composed of local performers, as well as a few international heavy-hitters, such as Polish-Canadian soprano Maria Knapik and German tenor Florian Voss, the group will perform a diverse array of musical theatre and opera tunes, with a healthy dose of folk music thrown in for good measure.
Linking the works together is the common theme of love, an appropriate frame for a pre-Valentine’s Day date-night event. Though many of the numbers will be technically complex to perform, Rice stresses that audiences need not feel intimidated if they don’t know their Verdi from their Wagner. (If you caught that alliteration, you probably don’t fall into that category.)
“It’s a perfect introduction to this music for those who don’t know much about it,” Rice says. “I think people have certain preconceived notions when they hear the word opera, assuming it’s either boring, inaccessible or both. But in the time I’ve been presenting concerts, I find people who come to these events always walk out changed in some way.”
Though the ensemble is not specifically queer (“That niche is already filled,” Rice laughs), he notes a high percentage of gays within the group. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, simply a product of the talent who auditioned. But Rice sees a relationship between coming out and vocal proficiency.
“Connecting with your voice forces you to confront who you are on a very honest level,” he says. “You can learn all the technique and theory you want, but you can only have true vocal mastery when you’re physically, emotionally and intellectually free to be who you are.”
The Velvet Curtain
Wed, Feb 8 and Sat, Feb 11 at 8pm
Metropolitan United Church
56 Queen St E