Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
This feature on Thomas Goerz is well-timed. As Thanksgiving approaches, so too does his appearance in the Canadian Opera Company‘s glittering season-opener La Traviata. And one thing is clear: Goerz is feeling thankful to be back with the COC: “It’s a total honour to be here again in Toronto singing Baron Douphol in La Traviata with the Canadian Opera Company, the very place where I sang my first professional contract as a chorus member!”
Much has happened since those chorus days. Goerz has become a sought-after principal, acclaimed alike for his operatic roles, musical-theatre roles and oratorio performances. He performs with internationally-renowned opera companies and symphonies, and is constantly working. (Immediately after appearing in La Traviata, he sings The Prophet in the Vancouver Opera Company‘s Canadian premiere of Dark Sisters.) While such a full schedule is a boon for any professional artist, it brings fulfilment and challenge. As he enters his fourth decade of professional singing, he considers the best part of his job to be the time he spends with his immediate colleagues: “We become a fraternity of singers – particularly on the Canadian scene.” Goerz enthuses: “It’s so great to walk into a rehearsal and greet a singer you haven’t seen in two or five or maybe even ten years, and you just pick up the conversation right where you left off.” The challenge? “Living in a ‘sub-let’ in a strange city. You do your best to make it feel like home. After three or four weeks, it actually starts to feel like home…. and then the contract is over and you pack your bags. The closing night goodbyes are tough too, as a group of singers all head off to different cities and countries for their next gig.”
Given his enormous success, what is most striking about Goerz is his grace and warmth–and his grateful appreciation of the opportunities he’s been given, especially when he was starting his career. One early break was being cast as Inspector Javert in the premier Canadian cast of Les Misérables, where many (including I) were introduced to him. He considers this casting an “incredible opportunity” with far-reaching implications. “No role has ever challenged me, or rewarded me, as richly,” he admits. “It changed my life, in many ways. I was a complete unknown, and all these years later people, including yourself, are still remembering with such generous comments.” Now, 26 years on, his memories of the experience are close and vivid. He mourns the recent passing of the “indomitable” Michael Burgess who “joins Graeme Campbell on the list of Les Mis colleagues no longer with us.”
Goerz thanks the Mirvishes for this break, but in hindsight, it was a casting coup. My daughter has a theory…the intensity with which the actor playing Javert sings the word “No” to Valjean during the opening number “Look Down” correlates directly to how compelling the Javert will be. So far in my experience, her theory holds true. As I think back, Goerz’s “No” foreshadowed a coiled fury that unspooled gradually, until it was a near-palpable torment. (In those days, for $15, students like me could buy the unsold seats in the last row of the upper balcony. At such a paltry sum, groups of us would go to hear him, over and again. And to this day, no other Javert’s rendition of “Stars” can evoke the seemingly-contradictory emotions of severity and pathos quite so potently as his.)
This role remains one of Goerz’s favourites, along with Bottom in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Completely opposite characters, he explains: one is cool, calculating, and doomed to a tragic end; while the other is jolly, obstreperous, and always looking for the next low-brow pun. But Goerz’s unfulfilled wish harkens to a show that has been called both musical and opera: Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He would have given “an arm (or fingernail…or toenail)” to perform the title role at some point in his career. Sweeney Todd “gets to sing such a great variety of music,” Goerz muses . . . “the wonderfully lyric duet ‘Pretty Women’ and the bombastic ‘Epiphany’ that concludes Act One….My voice has dropped a bit in range recently, so I will now concede that I will not add this incredible character to my resume.” Despite this lost opportunity, he’s having a great time performing the bass-baritone opera roles that still suit his voice.” I feel totally blessed to have sung and found success in so many musical styles,” he acknowledges. “Variety is so vital to any creative career — I have always had fresh challenges, and welcome each new one that comes along.”
So whose voice compels him?
The first who comes to his mind is the famous Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, his voice teacher at the Opera Division of the University of Toronto, where Goerz learned his craft: “Even though Louis is no longer with us, I can still hear the incredible humanity and pathos in his voice as he sang Verdi’s Rigoletto, a role he performed over 500 times in his career, and one which I had the privilege of hearing at Festival Ottawa at the National Arts Centre in 1981.” Goerz warms to the memory: “Louis would often sing short phrases in my voice lessons, and that was always a treat. But to hear him sing in a fully-staged performance was to hear a singer who sang with his entire being, body and soul. Hearing him perform live was the best voice lesson of all.”
Another strong influence is his Les Mis colleague, Graeme Campbell. “As Monsieur Thenardier, (he) possessed a rich, gravelly, baritone voice that thrilled me every time I heard it. His rendition of the sewer scene in Act II –‘here’s a hint of gold, stuck into a tooth…’ — lives in my memory to this day.” According to Goerz, Campbell’s phenomenal acting prowess began and ended with his voice: “he could make it thunderous and cruel one moment, and the next he was purring like a kitten. I could only dream of having such command of my vocal instrument.”
Goerz is just as objective and clear when considering the effects of such performances on the audience. Young people (like my children) readily follow musical theatre, which is almost always in English. But some are deterred by opera: its foreignness and unfamiliar language make it seem remote and rarefied. So what, then, would be a good “first opera”? “Well, definitely not a four- or five-hour marathon by Wagner!” Goerz warns, with a wink. He recommends Bizet’s Carmen as a great first opera for just about anyone. He pronounces its tunes “simply irresistible.” (His caveat: on rare occasions, the staging can be a bit risqué. Check the reviews before packing up the family.) Another tip: do some preparation prior to the performance. “Find a recording, and play those tunes till you really know them,” he suggests. “Then whistle them while you do the dishes, rake the leaves, whatever. My guess is, once in the theatre, you’ll have a hard time NOT singing along. And keep in mind — every company now has English surtitles. So even if you happen to be hearing an opera in Czech or Russian or Sanskrit (yes– I once had to sing in Sanskrit), the story will be clear to everyone in the theatre.”
Our conversation makes clear that whatever Goerz does, he does with a depth of intention. And this is as true outside, as inside, the theatre. Between engagements, he is an avid nature photographer who has hiked internationally, with his Nikon always at the ready. “Someday in the near future, I may publish my own ‘Opera Singers Go Hiking’ calendar,” he smiles. Another thing made clear… he has a puckish sense of humour! So I can’t resist asking a question that has niggled at many an opera fan’s mind: Has he ever forgotten the lyrics to song while performing? As it happens…yes. At Washington Opera at the Kennedy Centre, he sang the role of Robin Oakapple in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It was his official US debut. By his own admission, he was excited . . . but also a bit nervous. At the 7th performance, he started Robin’s second act, three-verse song by singing the second verse first. “OH – OH!” he winces. “I tried so hard to remember the words to the first verse. No way! So I bravely sang the second verse a second time — and found the most unusual emphasis for the most unimportant words. So not a true memory lapse that left me with nothing to say — but very, very close! Rule number one in opera AND musicals: Keep singing something! ANYTHING!”
Goerz will “keep singing” as Baron Douphol in the Canadian Opera Company‘s lush and lyrical La Traviata–but just for 3 performances: October 16, 30 and November 6. And, rest assured, any performance by him in a production by the COC can only be SOMETHING not to be missed.
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What: La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, based on the novel La dame aux Camélias (1852), a play adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas, fils; sung in Italian with English SURTITLES™; directed by Arin Arbus
Who: Audiences 13 years and up
When: Running until November 6, 2015
Where: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., Toronto, ON M5H 4G1
For information and tickets: coc.ca and 416-363-8231
Study Guide: La Traviata
Watch the trailer: La Traviata
©2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya